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ARPA-E Announces a Different Path for Solar Innovation

Ernie Moniz

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 decision to create a program devoted specifically to addressing solar energy storage was informed by ARPA-E’s mission to identify crucial white spaces in energy technology development. Prior to releasing its FOAs, the agency holds workshops with university, national lab, and industry experts to assess the technology and research gaps and market barriers associated with contemporary technology systems. One such workshop held in April, “Solar Beyond Grid Parity: Spectrum-Efficient Solar Energy for Dispatchable Electricity or Fuels,” focused on developing the conversation around how to store and use solar energy most efficiently and effectively when it has reached parity with grid electricity prices all over the country, while keeping costs low. Identifying weaknesses of current photovoltaic (PV) and concentrated solar power (CSP) systems is necessary to sustaining, and hopefully improving, the strength of the solar industry in the United States.

As renewable energy storage and grid integration are researched extensively within the Department of Energy, these workshops serve to expose the areas where more innovation is needed, foresee future technology and cost roadblocks, and enable the development of an investment strategy uniquely suited to ARPA-E’s abilities as an agency.

The FOCUS program follows on the heels of ARPA-E’s Grid-Scale Rampable Intermittent Dispatchable Storage (GRIDS) and High Energy Advanced Thermal Storage (HEATS) programs, which aim to revolutionize cost-effective solutions to storing thermal energy on the grid. These programs, like FOCUS, support breakthrough technologies that can lower the cost of integrating renewable energy on the grid, while strengthening its reliability. ARPA-E invested a total of $71 million in these two programs.

ARPA-E’s investments in far-sighted and cutting-edge clean energy research suggest that seemingly impractical realities are not only attainable, but actually within our reach – as long as we invest in the technology innovation to get us there. The importance of ARPA-E to the acceleration of these endeavors and for the future of next-generation clean energy technologies is immeasurable.

Already this year ARPA-E has invested in a number of projects advancing vehicle technology development through manufacturing, battery chemistries, and fuel sources. If the House appropriations bill is an indication of the future of funding for ARPA-E, the agency’s ability to invest in these kinds of high-risk, high-reward technologies will effectively be terminated. The amended House FY2014 budget allocates $70 million for ARPA-E, which would likely only allow for, at most, two FOCUS-sized funding opportunities, without factoring in agency operation costs.

In order to attain clean energy technology breakthroughs – particularly with solar and wind technologies that also require accompanying and complementary innovations in manufacturing and energy storage and grid integration systems – support for ARPA-E must be sustained and expanded, rather than contracted, as the agency invests in the nation’s best opportunities to realistically achieve a cost-effective clean energy future.

Originally posted on Energy Trends Insider.

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About the author

Megan Nicholson is the Research Assistant at ITIF. She graduated magna cum laude from Mount Holyoke College in May of 2011 with a B.A. in Economics and Environmental Studies. Before joining ITIF, Megan interned at the Global Environmental Facility, where she assisted with the research and writing of a publication on the organization's 20-year contribution to eliminating barriers to energy efficiency investment in developing countries.