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Solar Thermoelectric Generator

National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL)
High-Temp, High-Efficiency Solar-Thermoelectric Generators
ARPA-E Award: 
Golden, CO
Project Term: 
02/01/2013 to 12/30/2018
Project Status: 
Technical Categories: 
Critical Need: 
With the demand for energy in the U.S. constantly growing, reducing greenhouse gas emissions from our energy use is a tremendous challenge. Concentrated solar energy technologies would address these challenges because the sun is an abundant, renewable source that produces no emissions. Solar-thermal generators convert sunlight into electricity using temperature differences generated by concentrated sunlight. Improving the conversion efficiency of solar thermal energy directly to electricity would help make renewable solar energy competitive with conventional, nonrenewable forms of electricity generation.
Project Innovation + Advantages: 
The National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) is developing a solar thermoelectric generator to directly convert heat from concentrated sunlight to electricity. Thermoelectric devices can directly convert heat to electricity, yet due to cost and efficiency limitations they have not been viewed as a viable large-scale energy conversion technology. However, new thermoelectric materials have dramatically increased the efficiency of direct heat-to-electricity conversion. NREL is using these innovative materials to develop a new solar thermoelectric generator. This device will concentrate sunlight onto an absorbing surface on top of a thermoelectric stage, the resulting temperature difference between the top and bottom of the device will drive the generator to produce electricity at 3 times the efficiency of current systems. NREL's solar thermoelectric generator could reduce the cost associated with converting large amounts of solar energy into electricity through a much simpler and scalable process which does not rely upon moving parts and transfer fluids.
Potential Impact: 
If successful, NREL's solar thermal electric generator would be capable of greater than 15% conversion efficiency and less than $0.5/watt, making it an economically viable approach to harness sunlight for electrical energy generation.
Greater use of solar energy would reduce U.S. reliance on fossil fuels--strengthening America's energy security.
Solar energy technologies have zero net greenhouse gas emissions and can also reduce fossil fuel consumption--helping curb production of carbon dioxide emissions that contribute to global climate change.
This project could help position the U.S. as a leader in the solar electronics industry.
ARPA-E Program Director: 
Dr. Michael Haney
Project Contact: 
Dr. David S. Ginley
California Institute of Technology
Colorado School of Mines
Jet Propulsion Laboratory
Release Date: