Grant helps Tulane save solar power for a rainy day

April 17, 2015

Barri Bronston
Phone: 504-314-7444


Matthew Escarra (Photo by Ryan Rivet)

Tulane University is sharing in a $3.3 million grant to develop a hybrid solar energy converter capable of storing solar energy for use at any time of the day — rain or shine.

The three-year grant from the U.S. Department of Energy is part of the Advance Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E) FOCUS program, which advances high-impact energy technologies that are too early for private-sector investment but which have the potential to radically improve the environment as well as national and economic security.

Matthew Escarra, an assistant professor of engineering physics at Tulane, is working on the three-year project with two California companies – Otherlab of San Francisco and Boeing-Spectrolab of Los Angeles.

Otherlab is a small research and development company whose subsidiary, Sunfolding, is developing a novel solar tracking technology at a fraction of the cost of the current tracking technologies. Boeing-Spectrolab is one of the world’s leading companies for the development of high efficiency solar cells.

“The vast majority of solar energy conversion to electricity that is going on in the world today is intermittent, meaning that solar panels only generate electricity when the sun is shining, and output is proportional to the amount of sunlight reaching the panel,” Escarra said.

The project seeks to develop a hybrid solar energy system that combines high efficiency solar cells with a thermal receiver capable of capturing, storing and dispatching solar energy at any time. “We can dispatch this stored energy whenever a cloud passes by, or even just when electricity prices rise, providing more solar energy when demand is the highest,” Escarra said.

Otherlab is leading the system design, developing the solar tracker along with a thermal receiver and storage system. Tulane, with assistance from Boeing-Spectrolab, is developing the technology that converts the highest energy portion of sunlight to electricity with high efficiency while directing the lowest energy sunlight to the thermal receiver. Tulane’s share of the grant is $925,000.

Escarra said the team plans to have a prototype ready for testing in northern California by 2017.


Tulane University, New Orleans, LA 70118 504-865-5000