MIT, German Firm Plan Center For Sustainable Energy Research

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a German research giant announced Saturday that they would open a sustainable energy research center near the university’s campus that will employ at least 60 people.

The goal of what will be called the MIT-Fraunhofer Center for Sustainable Energy Systems is to be a premier site in the country for rapid development of solar and other energy efficient technologies, said MIT and Fraunhofer officials. The center, which will employ mainly scientists and engineers, was announced by MIT president Susan Hockfield, German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, and energy and environmental affairs Secretary Ian A. Bowles during a two-day MIT energy conference.

With $5 million in initial funding by the Massachusetts Technology Collaborative and $1 million from the energy company National Grid, the center will be a partnership between the university and Germany’s Fraunhofer Institute, owned by Fraunhofer-Gesellschaft, a research company that operates more than 80 research facilities and is partially funded by the German government.

About 60 jobs will be created at first, officials said, with hopes that innovations developed there can be licensed and develop into for-profit companies.

The center will focus on reducing the cost of solar technologies over the next five years, officials said.

“The end goal of all of these projects is to drive the dollar-per-watt down,” Nolan Browne MBA ’06, who will be a managing director for the center, said in a telephone interview. “If you can do that, it’s a big win.”

Although different-sized solar panels harness different amounts of energy and vary in cost, a panel that can produce about 200 watts — which, in the Boston area, would power a 60-watt bulb for about 13 hours — currently costs about $800, Browne said.

Besides solar innovation, the center will have two labs focusing on building efficiency and prototype energy devices. The prototype lab will take advanced materials, such as electronics for the panels or encapsulated gel, and turn them into new or improved devices. The building efficiency lab will work to develop better materials to construct green structures.

“You look at Germany today, and they’re further along than we are in terms of green buildings,” said Browne, who is now director of business development in sustainable energy for Fraunhofer’s U.S. headquarters, in Plymouth, Mich. “If we were able to figure out financing and proper design of buildings — so, say, you use more natural light, better ventilation, and better insulation — you’re going to decrease power consumption markedly.”

The Fraunhofer Institute for Solar Energy Systems, whose parent company employs 12,700 scientists and engineers, is the largest research lab in Europe focusing on solar technology, fuel cells, and sustainable building materials, according to its Web site.

Bowles said at the conference that the new center will strengthen the state’s commitment “to making Massachusetts the national leader in clean energy.” Last week Marlborough-based Evergreen Solar Inc. announced plans to double the size of a manufacturing facility being built at the former Fort Devens. The company also said it plans to triple its workforce, to about 1,000.

Along with Browne, MIT professor Tonio Buonassisi and Roland Schindler, a professor in Germany, will lead the center, it was announced during the conference.

MIT officials also said that they do not have a specific site designated for the facility but that it would be close to the campus.

Other solar research facilities are located at Northwestern University and Arizona State University.