Posts tagged “innovation”
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.
From time to time I will start highlighting some groups that are finding new ways to solve some of the many energy financing challenges that we face. I will be looking at both groups that are finding ways to fill gaps as well as companies that are rethinking old approaches to energy finance.
I thought I would start this series with a look at Greentown Labs, which is actually in the midst of both building a platform to fill a gap in the energy finance marketplace and exploring the use of new financing techniques, namely crowd-funding, to try and take their vision to new heights.
Greentown Labs is a cleantech incubator based in Boston (though in the process of moving to new and expanded space in neighboring Somerville in September). The idea – started two years ago – was to provide early-stage companies a place to not just collaborate on ideas and share services, but to have space to actually build the energy hardware of tomorrow. The lab has all of the things you’d expect to find at an incubator – collaborative space, mentors, and inspiration, but what sets it apart are the work areas – more than a dozen projects were underway on the lab floor (which boasts a machine shop and an electronics shop to go with the more typical software platforms and office-like work space), ranging from systems that fit on a table top to 40 foot long welding projects. Rather than my experience with most incubators – something along the lines of coffee shop meets office meets collaborative space – Greentown looks 1 part incubator and 2 parts mad scientist workshop.
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»
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.
The impacts of budget sequestration are slowly being unveiled to the general public. Furloughs at the Federal Aviation Authority (FAA) led to air traffic gridlock and angry travelers. Parks and national tourist sites are cutting back hours. And the Department of Defense (DOD) recently announced furloughs for 680,000 civilian employees. While these short-term impacts are painful, in particular to those losing work hours and income, sequestration is initiating cuts with negative, long-term impacts, which are not yet immediately apparent.
One area of specific concern is the potential $381 million in cuts to energy innovation investments at the DOD – a 25 percent cut compared to FY2012 levels. Since 2009, DOD has invested $5 billion in clean energy research, development, testing, demonstration, and procurement, representing almost 25 percent of U.S. clean energy funding in FY2012. DOD’s focus on clean energy innovation is important for three reasons:
- The DOD has been the source of some of the last century’s most important breakthrough technologies, including the Internet, GPS, and microchips and it could have a similar impact on clean energy technologies like batteries and smart grid;
- The DOD has developed its own cohesive innovation ecosystem that bridges its investments in research to its procurement budget and actual use of new technologies in the battlefield, which allows for accelerated pathways for technology development;
- The DOD budget is typically not politically controversial in comparison to other sources of energy innovation investment like the Department of Energy, assuring consistent funding over time rather than periods of boom and bust.
During the past five years DOD has quickly ramped up its energy innovation investments to address strategic challenges impacting warfighters, such as protecting liquid fuel supply lines and addressing the geopolitical consequences of climate change. But budget sequestration threatens to slow, or even halt, these efforts.
Making Innovation Part of Climate Hawks Policy Pitch
In a previous article I argued that climate policy advocates should make energy innovation part of their policy elevator pitch. A good opportunity to start is now available through the debate on reforming and re-authorizing the America COMPETES Act.
Within the climate advocacy community there are those that argue for aggressive clean energy innovation policy (such as myself) and those that argue for aggressive deployment of existing clean energy technologies (such as Center for American Progress’s Joe Romm and 350.org’s Bill McKibben). Each provides different policy emphasis and nuance. Today, deployment policies receive higher priority, reflected in it dominating the narrative among advocates as well as dominating the portfolio of U.S. public investments in clean energy. As a result, conflict occurs over what policy changes should be made.
As Grist’s Dave Roberts argues (correctly to a degree), both “camps” agree on a lot and everyone should aggressively work for clean energy to be a national priority to “lift all boats,”—both innovation and deployment of today’s technologies alike. How then should this consensus be reflected in our pitches to policymakers?
Bringing together climate policy and innovation to form a cohesive carbon tax proposal reframes U.S. climate advocates’ near-myopic focus on carbon pricing, mandates, and subsidies and expands the discussion on how we can use those tools to spur innovation, writes Matthew Stepp.