Posts tagged “technology”
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.
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?
I recently sat down with Dr. Cheryl Martin, the Deputy Director of ARPA-E, the federal government’s premier program for investing in high-risk, high-reward energy research and development. The interview covered a lot of ground and touched on different aspects of America’s energy innovation ecosystem, so it’s being published as a multi-part series, lightly edited, and broken up into cohesive topics.
In part 1 of the interview, Dr. Martin took a deep-dive into the lessons ARPA-E has learned in its few short years of existence. In part 2, we covered ARPA-E’s efforts to link research and emerging technologies to the marketplace. In particular, Dr. Martin discussed the independent path ARPA-E is traveling by building relationships with potential end-users of emerging energy technologies, like companies, the Department of Defense, and utilities such as Duke Energy.
But one potential partner often not discussed at length in national energy policy discussions is states. States are in many ways more active in the clean energy space than the federal government, in particular on technology deployment policies. Over 20 states have created clean energy trust funds supported by dedicated revenue streams like public benefit charges. Thirty states and the District of Columbia have enacted renewable portfolio standards and another eight states have set voluntary clean energy market share goals. Almost half of all states offer clean energy tax credits or grant programs. And 41 states offer various forms of clean energy loan programs. CONTINUE»
I recently sat down with Dr. Cheryl Martin, the Deputy Director of ARPA-E, the federal government’s premier program for investing in high-risk, high-reward energy research and development. The interview covered a lot of ground and touched on different aspects of America’s energy innovation ecosystem, so it’s being published as a multi-part series, lightly edited, and broken up into cohesive topics. In part 1 of the interview, Dr. Martin took a deep-dive into the lessons ARPA-E has learned in its few short years of existence.
In part 2, we cover a pervasive issue in innovation policy: linking research and emerging technologies to market. In particular, a major concern of ARPA-E is that doesn’t have a dedicated end-user that’s going to procure emerging technologies, like DARPA has at the Department of Defense (DOD). DARPA is ARPA-E’s kindred spirit and many opine that until it gains a large-scale early adopter, its impact won’t reach that of its defense brethren because it won’t be able to bridge the technology “valleys-of-death” that plague many new innovations from reaching commercial scale. CONTINUE»
Dr. Cheryl Martin is the Deputy Director of ARPA-E, the federal government’s premier program for investing in high-risk, high-reward energy research and development. She’s the heir apparent to Arun Majumdar, the first Director of ARPA-E who departed last year after helping spin-up the program and bring it to national prominence.
She assumes leadership less than four years into ARPA-E’s existence at an inflection point for the program as well as U.S. climate and energy policy. On one hand, government investments in energy innovation are declining and gridlock makes crafting a new comprehensive national energy policy a pipedream. On the other hand, ARPA-E recently hosted its fourth widely attended Energy Innovation Summit, a number of early investments are starting to show signs of success, and its bipartisan support continues to grow. It’s one of the few bright spots in an increasingly contentious energy policy debate.
I recently sat down with Dr. Martin and talked extensively about her unique take on ARPA-E, its potential legacies, and the evolving U.S. energy innovation ecosystem. The interview covered a lot of ground so it will be published as a multi-part series, lightly edited, and broken up into cohesive topics.
This is Part 4 of a series of posts analyzing and detailing federal investments in clean energy innovation. Part 1 defined “clean energy innovation.” Part 2 broke down the federal clean energy innovation budget. Part 3 took a look at federal investments in clean energy demonstration projects.
For the last couple of years, the lion’s share of debate on U.S. clean energy policy has focused on encouraging deployment – or large-scale construction and installation – of low-carbon technologies. By significantly deploying clean energy technologies, supporters say, the United States can encourage integration of emerging technologies in an energy market dominated by entrenched fossil fuel interests, spur cost-cutting economies of scale, and get started on lowering greenhouse gas emissions in the process. However, others argue that there is a necessity to designing well-constructed deployment incentives aimed at directly spurring innovation to address climate change.
A Quick Typology of Deployment Policies
Federal clean energy deployment incentives can be made available through grants and other annually appropriated programs. For instance, the State and Tribal Energy Programs at the Department of Energy (DOE) deploy building efficiency and renewable energy technologies within communities. The New Energy Frontier initiative at the Department of the Interior (DOI) deploys renewable and energy efficiency technologies on federal lands.
This is Part 2 of a series of posts analyzing and detailing federal investments in clean energy innovation. Part 1, defining clean energy innovation, can be found here.
Clean energy innovation encompasses more than any one policy, whether it is R&D, tax incentives, regulation, or an economy-wide carbon price. Well-designed public investments impact the entire energy innovation ecosystem and fill gaps in next-generation technology development and deployment. Using data from the Energy Innovation Tracker, this post takes a top-line look at the United States’ portfolio of clean energy investments between 2009 and 2012.
The figure below details federal investments in energy innovation since FY2009, which are divided into ‘technology development’ and ‘technology deployment’ categories. In this case, technology development captures all investments in basic science, research and development, demonstration; technology deployment investments facilitate the installation and procurement of clean energy technologies in commercial markets, along with supporting investments in siting and permitting and training and education.
During the past four years, the balance between development and deployment has evolved dramatically, driven in part by increased procurement of emerging and commercial off-the-shelf energy technologies by the Department of Defense, as well as expanded deployment initiatives and tax incentives through the Department of Energy and the U.S. Treasury Department.
Innovation is Central to Making Clean Energy Cheap
The United States and the world face an urgent imperative to transform its energy system by developing and deploying low or zero-carbon technologies on a dramatic scale. And while developed regions like the United States and Europe might be willing to change their consumption patterns and businesses to incorporate clean energy (though not significantly), developing nations can’t afford to pay the necessary premium for this access. And they shouldn’t have to, as they try to gain access to energy of any kind. As such, the only way the entire global energy system can transition to clean energy is if its cost is lower and its performance is equal to or greater than cheap fossil fuels like natural gas, coal, and oil.
Unfortunately, today’s clean energy technologies like wind, solar, electric vehicles, smart grids, and energy storage are more expensive and oftentimes performance-limited compared to their fossil competitors. Solar and wind power are intermittent without energy storage and still require significant advances in energy conversion efficiency. Electric vehicles are up to double the cost of comparable gasoline powered cars, and significant infrastructure build-out like smart grids, charging infrastructure, and transmission lines are barriers to rapid deployment as well. (Read More: An Introduction to Fueling Innovation)
Different Situation Than Attempted Takeover of Unocal in 2005
Last week, the China National Offshore Oil Corporation (CNOOC) tendered an offer to buy Nexen, a smaller, independent Canadian oil company for $15.1 billion. The deal has been approved by Nexen’s board, and the price premium of 61% above the previously-traded share price should be enough to win-over Nexen’s shareholders. It still must pass scrutiny from the government of Canada, and of the United Kingdom and the United States, where Nexen has many reserves.
CNOOC had attempted a takeover of the American oil company Unocal in 2005. Then, a hostile response from the public and Members of Congress forced them to pull-back. Now, however, regardless of some opposition from within the U.S. Congress, the betting is that this deal will pass muster. The opposition in Congress is mostly from the usual suspects like Senator Schumer and Congressmen Markey and Forbes, who are using this as an opportunity to push other issues they have, like market access to China for American exporters or lease rates in the Gulf of Mexico.
It’s the end of a very long day, but I couldn’t resist commenting on the recent story from Joule Biotechnologies: Joule Biotechnologies Introduces Revolutionary Process for Producing Renewable Transportation Fuels CAMBRIDGE, Mass.–(BUSINESS WIRE)–Joule Biotechnologies, Inc., an innovative bioengineering startup developing game-changing alternative energy solutions, today unveiled its breakthrough Helioculture™ technology—a revolutionary process that harnesses sunlight to directly convert carbon dioxide (CO2) into SolarFuel™ liquid energy. This eco-friendly, direct-to-fuel conversion requires no agricultural land or fresh water, and leverages a highly scalable system capable of producing more than 20,000 gallons of renewable ethanol or hydrocarbons per acre annually—far eclipsing productivity levels of current alternatives while rivaling the costs of fossil fuels. Joule SolarFuel liquid energy meets today’s vehicle fuel specifications and… Continue»