Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Central Florida Missed Out on $112 Million in Solar Research Funds

Palm Bay will be the site of research to study the yield of photovoltaic panels, but Central Florida missed out on most of $112 million in federal research funds to make solar power a viable alternative to fossil fuel within five years.

New York state, which put up $100 million in matching money, won the bulk of a $62.5 million U.S. Department of Energy grant, outbidding a group in Central Florida that offered about half as much matching money.

Two California-based groups each won $25 million, as well, in the federal SunShot Initiative's Advanced Manufacturing Partnerships, according to a Department of Energy news release.

The New York decision likely means that most of the 4,200 regional jobs supporters had envisioned for an area of the Sunshine State soon to be battered by thousands of aerospace layoffs will not materialize.

"Florida's current bid wasn't exactly what (the Energy Department) wanted at this time," Susie Quinn, a legislative aide to Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Orlando, said Wednesday. Secretary of Energy Steven Chu informed Nelson during a call Wednesday from Saudi Arabia that the Central Florida's research consortium's bid had been rejected.

There will be a Florida role, though.

The University of Central Florida will work on the project in Palm Bay, according to the Energy Department and U.S. Sen. Charles Schumer of New York, who on Wednesday announced the winning partnership between the technology consortium Sematech and the College of Nanoscale Science and Engineering at the University of Albany.

The work likely would take place at the former Intersil Corp. building in Palm Bay, which has been donated to UCF.

Researchers in New York will "work with the University of Central Florida to develop cost-effective in-line measurement and inspection tools to enable increased (photovoltaic) manufacturing yield," according to the Energy Department release.

UCF officials were at first floored by the apparent rejection and then uncertain about what lesser role they might play.

"What we have initially heard is disappointing. But until we hear more definitively, we are holding out hope," UCF spokesman Grant Heston said.

Nelson's office said the announcement was not all bad news.

"There should be other opportunities in the future, and Florida will be well-positioned. Meantime, folks at the Energy Department will sit down with UCF to discuss the stronger and weaker aspects of Florida's grant proposal and answer any questions," said Nelson's spokesman, Dan McLaughlin.

Disappointed Brevard officials were hopeful the competition's apparent result could be altered.

"Even though the information we learned today was not encouraging, we are still awaiting a final decision from the Department of Energy," said Lynda Weatherman, president and CEO of the Economic Development Commission of Florida's Space Coast. "This pursuit has been and continues to be a highly competitive process, and one I hope we continue."

Losing the solar energy research center is a particularly hard blow to Brevard, where unemployment is 11.4 percent, said Mike Slotkin, an economist at Florida Tech in Melbourne.

"That was a possible industry of the future," he said. "It was a possible anchor industry not for the last 30 years, but for the next 30 years."

Florida organizers had hoped working with Sematech, a consortium of technology companies, would help in the quest for tens of millions of dollars in grant funding. It certainly has a strong track record of revitalizing moribund industries.

Sematech was created in Austin, Texas, about two decades ago to develop semiconductors. Its name is a combination of SEmiconductor MAnufacturing TECHnology.

The company recently moved to Albany, N.Y., lured in part by massive funding, to study nanotechnology, which is the science of building new technology at the molecular level.

Sematech partnered with UCF, Enterprise Florida and others to compete for the entire grant.

UCF officials felt that their main competition came from Minnesota and California. It is unclear whether they knew that Sematech was negotiating with the Energy Department in partnership with the University of Albany, as well.

SOURCE: http://www.floridatoday.com/article/20110406/BUSINESS/104060340/Central-Florida-misses-out-bulk-federal-solar-energy-money

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