Last month the Department of Interior (DOI) Bureau of Land Management (BLM) held its first competitive auction for commercial solar development on public lands, offering three parcels for lease with a collective acreage of 3,700 in the San Luis Valley of Colorado. The three leases are located in two of DOI’s designated “Solar Energy Zones,” which the DOI carved out for quick solar development due to access to existing transmission, limited environmental impacts, and cheap land rental.
If fully developed, these two Solar Energy Zones could potentially produce 400 MW of energy, enough to power an estimated 125,000 homes. Unfortunately DOI was alone in their enthusiasm as the auction drew zero bids from solar companies. Moving forward, DOI should learn from this initial failure and expand its Solar Energy Zones to also act as a test bed for next-generation clean energy designs, not just off-the-shelf technologies.
This guest post from Lew Milford, founder and President of the Clean Energy Group (CEG) and founder of the Clean Energy States Alliance (CESA), was originally featured on the Huffington Post.
There are a lot of great things Europe has that the U.S. doesn’t — comfortable taxis, good table wine, Idris Elba — and then there’s offshore wind, lots and lots of offshore wind.
I spent last week in Europe hearing from key offshore wind leaders — from top officials in industry, government and finance — about how they built a large, successful offshore wind industry. I learned some key lessons, and heard some precautions, about how we should go about offshore wind development in the U.S.
I listened to them with a wary ear. There are many differences between the U.S. and Europe on energy policy and, on some issues, we in the U.S. will never go Europe’s way. Nevertheless, in the area of offshore wind, U.S. energy policymakers can learn a lot from the lessons Europe has to offer.
Before its annual Energy Innovation Summit in 2013, the Department of Energy’s Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E) announced funding for a new program aimed at rethinking electric vehicle (EV) batteries. The program, Robust Affordable Next Generation Energy Storage Systems or RANGE, was created as part of an integrated effort to accelerate electric vehicle innovation to reduce costs and improve performance of EVs. Last week, ARPA-E announced the names and descriptions of the 22 recipients for the RANGE program, representing fresh approaches to making EVs available to everyone.
ARPA-E has invested in transportation technologies since its creation. The new RANGE program complements the agency’s BEEST program for doubling the energy density of EV batteries by altering battery composition and materials, AMPED for seeking advanced power management technologies for storage, and GRIDS, for developing cheap utility scale storage. The RANGE program is a genuine reflection of these previous ARPA-E’s programs as it supports truly far-reaching innovations and revolutionary energy technologies.
Last year Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley asked the Energy Future Coalition (EFC), a project of the UN Foundation, to design a multi-faceted and comprehensive pilot-project plan for the state’s utilities. EFC assembled a stakeholder group including two Maryland utilities, PEPCO and Baltimore Gas & Electric Company (BGE), to submit ideas for pilot projects that could build a “better utility future.” The resulting report, “Utility 2.0: Piloting the Future for Maryland’s Electric Utilities and their Customers,” takes a different path than typical electricity utility reform strategies. Rather than dictating a single pathway for higher renewable penetration, the report calls for a number of pilot projects designed to create an entirely new grid system that advances innovation, resilience, reliability, flexibility, and financial viability for customers.
Electric utilities are usually characterized as ‘anti-innovators’ as their ultimate goal is only to sell electricity at the lowest cost and highest reliability. Integrating and transmitting distributed renewable energy presents a challenge to the standard operation of utilities due to intermittency issues, distribution, and new infrastructure needs.
In March Senators Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) and Mary Landrieu (D-LA) introduced S. 1273, the Fixing America’s Inequities with Revenues (FAIR) Act of 2013.The bill received attention again last week, when it was reexamined during a Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee hearing. The FAIR Act, recommends allocating a set share of 27.5 percent of total federal offshore drilling revenues to coastal states with productive drilling leases up to 200 nautical miles off their coastlines.Under the FAIR Act, states that set up funds for alternative and renewable energy, energy efficiency, or conservation would be eligible to receive an additional 10 percent of revenues, which offers states an opportunity to strengthen investments in innovation.
Unfortunately, the bill as presented is weak – it does not include any measures to directly support clean energy innovation with drilling revenue. ITIF argued in its recent report, Drilling for Clean Energy Innovation, that raising revenue from fossil fuel drilling is a direct and bipartisan way to support clean energy innovation and mitigate climate change. While the FAIR Act provides a unique incentive for states to invest in energy programs, there is little guarantee that any investment will be directed towards innovation. The proposal could be strengthened by allocating revenue to federal energy innovation programs like ARPA-E, that already direct key investments in breakthrough clean energy technology research, development, and demonstration.
Despite the House of Representative’s recent vote to cut appropriations for the Department of Energy’s breakthrough research agency, ARPA-E, by 74 percent, the agency continues to advance the development of next-generation clean energy technologies. ARPA-E recently announced a $30 million funding opportunity, Full-Spectrum Optimized Conversion and Utilization of Sunlight (FOCUS), aimed at developing new hybrid solar energy systems that include storage, at lower costs and with greater performance.
The FOCUS program is looking for projects that research and develop solar technologies beyond current photovoltaic and concentrated solar power models. Research will specifically confront the persistent and most inhibiting performance weakness of existing solar technologies and a major obstacle for improving solar cost competitiveness: providing consistent energy supply when the sun is not shining.
Like ARPA-E projects in general, these solar projects won’t look like your average commercial panels. Instead of funding incremental improvements in solar cell efficiency, ARPA-E’s investments aim to accelerate transformative changes to the way we think about harnessing and controlling solar energy. The FOCUS program recognizes that to reach cost-competitiveness, new solar technologies must not only improve efficiency, they must do so in a way that provides immediate access to solar-based electricity as well as incorporate advanced technologies that can store electricity until it is demanded.
The House Energy and Water Appropriations subcommittee voted this week on an energy appropriations bill that decimates federal investment in clean energy innovation in the name of prioritizing funding for national security and economic growth. This bill presents the harshest proposed cuts to energy innovation programs in the last two years, cutting total funding for key Department of Energy offices by nearly 20 percent from already-sequestered FY2013 levels.
To make matters worse, the most significantly impacted programs under the proposal are arguably the most important efforts for ensuring the future growth of clean energy in the United States. The legislation cuts the Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy (EERE) budget by 43 percent from FY2013 levels under sequestration, or nearly 65 percent from the President’s requested levels for FY2014. EERE’s responsibility as the “connective tissue” of the U.S. energy innovation ecosystem, as well as its efforts to enable and develop an advanced manufacturing sector in the United States would likely be derailed by such significant funding cuts. CONTINUE»
There is substantial opportunity to incorporate next-generation nuclear energy — through either large, advanced reactors or emerging SMR designs or both — more significantly into a productive strategy for reducing carbon emissions in the long and short term, writes Matthew Stepp.
The Department of Interior (DOI) announced this week the first-ever competitive offshore wind auction. Many policymakers and advocates are hailing it as a milestone moment: the auction offers leases for almost 165,000 acres of ocean off the coast of Rhode Island and Massachusetts, which if fully-developed, could power one million homes using clean wind power. While these short-term impacts are important, they’re still small compared to the overall clean energy needs of the United States (and the world). DOI’s auction is a much more important long-term step in support of offshore wind innovation.
Without a doubt, the opportunity is ripe for offshore wind technologies to generate low-carbon electricity. Seventy-eight percent of U.S. electricity demand comes from 28 coastal and Great Lake states, which geographically correspond well to high-speed offshore wind patterns. Many of these states pay higher average electricity costs than the rest of the country, providing an opening for low-cost, low-carbon energy alternatives (price data found here, page 7). But offshore wind has a big problem: it’s not cost-competitive with other sources of electricity.
I recently asked a few colleagues over lunch the kind of wonky question that would only be allowed within the borders of the District of Columbia: Aside from more government investment – which is desperately needed – what are the big issues with America’s energy innovation ecosystem?
There’s no simple answer to that question, so we talked about a range of important ideas such as supporting advanced manufacturing, creating technology incubators, and reforming the DOE National Labs system. But what struck me was my colleagues’ insistence that what’s also needed is educating policymakers and advocates on how the energy innovation ecosystem fits together.
During the last five years, the U.S. federal government has added new institutions to spur innovation at different points along the technology development cycle, such as ARPA-E, the Energy Innovation Hubs, and Energy Frontier Research Centers. Analysts like myself argue more is needed. In response, policymakers fear duplication, extra bureaucracy, and inefficiencies often because these requests lack a clear case for how the policy pieces complement rather than repeat or compete with each other. This misunderstanding fuels – along with many other factors – a lack of support for strengthening the ecosystem as a whole.
Describing how these pieces work together can quickly get nuanced, but a metaphor came out of the discussion that merits repeating: think of energy innovation policy as a group of people mowing an Earth-sized, overgrown lawn. In this case, mowing the lawn is the stand-in for developing competitive, high-performance clean energy technologies. It is the problem we’re trying to collectively address and we’re implementing a coordinated set of policy solutions to do so.
Programs like the Energy Frontier Research Centers (EFRCs) within the DOE Office of Science are trying to solve fundamental science problems. For mowing the lawn, it is the equivalent of researching why the grass is growing in the first place. If we completely understand why the grass is growing, we can potentially develop better, more efficient solutions for mowing the entire lawn in the future. The EFRCs and Office of Science are studying underlying science problems in chemistry, material science, and physics that could potentially lead to more energy dense batteries, more efficient solar panels, and new low-carbon technologies we haven’t thought of today. We know that understanding the basic science is crucial because the possible outcomes of the work are unknown and unlimited.
The Energy Innovation Hubs are more goal-oriented. The Hubs are collaboratively working with academics, industry, and the National Labs to reach particular technological milestones (not particular technology). This is the equivalent of knowing what type of futuristic lawnmower the world needs to cut the grass, and exploring a multitude of ways to develop it. The Hubs have set audacious technology goals and are conducting crosscutting research that bridges breakthrough science with engineering and industrial application. For example, the Joint Center for Energy Storage Research is taking the last decade’s worth of breakthrough material and chemistry science to develop new battery storage pathways that are five times more energy dense than today’s best lithium-ion battery at one-fifth the cost in five years. We know that developing batteries with such characteristics would be game-changers for emerging industries like electric vehicles. In this case, we understand the technological characteristics necessary to revolutionize clean energy; we just need to figure out how to apply breakthrough science to get there.
ARPA-E is investing in transformative energy technologies by providing small grants on three-year terms to overcome research barriers to piloting potential breakthrough energy technologies. ARPA-E targets investments outside of traditional research pathways. This is the equivalent of going beyond asking how to develop a better lawnmower, to wondering how to develop grass that naturally grows half the length or half as fast so that we don’t need to cut it as much or at all. For clean energy, this has included investing in “electrofuels” – biofuels created by microorganisms and not plant material, like that used to make traditional biofuels. Electrofuels could be ten times more energy efficient than current biofuels at less cost because they do not rely on fertilizers or plant processing, and do not require large areas to grow crops. In this case, we are thinking outside the box and are making small, strategic investments to advance entirely unique and new breakthrough energy technologies.