All posts by Matthew Stepp

MS-Pittsburgh

Part 4: Pittsburgh, From Rust Belt Loser to Clean Energy Leader

This is the fourth and final article of a four part series chronicling highlights from my seven-city tour, Energy Innovation Across America. The first stop was a tour of Salt Lake City’s energy innovation ecosystem, which can be found here. Highlights from my tours of five Department of Energy National Labs can be found here. And my policy discussions with leaders of the Midwest energy innovation ecosystem can be found here. My goal was to meet energy innovators from across the country and bring their stories and perspectives back to Washington. For a brief introduction to the series, visithere, and for information on the Millennial Trains Project, see here.

Ask the average American about what they feel Pittsburgh, PA represents and you’ll likely hear some typical responses: Steelers football, blue-collar middle class workers, steel mills, and coal plants. If anything, Pittsburgh is considered the quintessential rust belt city – historically focused on manufacturing and industry, but one that has fallen on hard times since the 1980’s when strong foreign competition shuttered plants and stopped offering job opportunities. That’s certainly some of the images I … Read the rest

MS-Chicago

Part 3: Midwest Building World Class Tools to Spur Energy Innovation

This is the third of a four part series chronicling highlights from my seven-city tour, Energy Innovation Across America. The first stop was a tour of Salt Lake City’s energy innovation ecosystem, which can be found here. And highlights from my tours of five Department of Energy National Labs can be foundhere. My goal was to meet energy innovators from across the country and bring their stories and perspectives back to Washington. For a brief introduction to the series, visit here, and for information on the Millennial Trains Project, see here.

Pulling into Chicago’s Union Station in a 1940’s era California Zephyr is a historical juxtaposition. When the Zephyrs were in service in the mid-20th century, Chicago was a city in transition. Its biggest industries, such as meat-packing, were in significant decline, representing America’s decades-long shift from a manufacturing economy to one based on services. When the Zephyr returned to Chicago in August 2013 as part of the Millennial Trains Project, we found Chicago at the center of another economic shift, from fossil fuels to clean energy.

As the United States clean energy … Read the rest

Government Shutdown Damages U.S. Energy Innovation

The federal government has officially shutdown as of midnight, October 1st, 2013 due to Congress’s failure to pass a budget. The 2013 fiscal year ends on September 30th and the government required a new budget to continue operations. The government has been operating on a Continuing Resolution – a CR, or an extension of the previous years budget, since 2012.

While coverage of the shutdown will focus on the political circus that is fueling it and the thousands furloughed from their jobs, it is also important to note that it is directly impacting America’s overall energy innovation capacity. In the short-term, many of the nation’s premier energy innovation institutions will scale-down or shutdown completely, while a few will continue to operate using carryover funds. That means the longer the shutdown drags on, the less research America will produce, and the fewer next-gen energy technologies and fundamental scientific discoveries. In other words, a prolonged shutdown threatens overall U.S. international competitiveness and progress towards a low-carbon advanced energy system.

Specifically, the following energy-related institutions and programs are being directly impacted by the government shutdown:

Impacts on Existing Fossil Fuel Read the rest

ARPA-E Still Pushing Boundaries of Clean Energy in Fragile Budget Environment

Last week, the Advanced Research Projects Agency – Energy (ARPA-E) announced support for 33 new projects aimed at developing an affordable and scalable clean energy transportation sector. The projects are the latest round of public investment from ARPA-E in high-risk, high-reward low-carbon energy innovations that could be game-changing in the fight to address climate change. The projects are notable because Washington’s current fragile budget and policy environment – a dangerous combination of sequestration, budget cuts, and an overall negative view of energy innovation – puts ARPA-E’s funding at risk for the next fiscal year.

First, let’s look at the programs. ARPA-E takes investing in new sectors of energy innovation seriously – ARPA-E’s due-diligence includes a small, but dedicated government staff, interaction with industry to understand emerging research problems, and a constant influx of new program managers. Program managers are brought in on three year temporary terms to carry out their investments. ARPA-E’s Deputy Director Cheryl Martin explained this is important because the “three year cycle doesn’t allow us to drink our own cool-aide.” In other words, it prevents stagnation of investments and allows for fresh approaches to energy innovation.

The … Read the rest

MS-3

Part 2: The Mad Scientists at the Department of Energy’s National Laboratories

This is the second of a four part series chronicling highlights from my seven-city tour, Energy Innovation Across America. The first, on my tour of Salt Lake City’s energy innovation ecosystem, can be found here. My goal was to meet energy innovators from across the country and bring their stories and perspectives back to Washington. For a brief introduction to the series, visit here, and for information on the Millennial Trains Project, see here.

The National Laboratories have a storied, yet largely hidden, history and presence in the energy innovation space. Created to build the atomic bomb in the 1940’s, the Labs — now totaling 17 institutions — have evolved over time to conduct “big science” to address leading national missions, solve complex societal problems, and keep the United States at the leading edge of innovation. The Labs’ work in clean energy is no different.

Unfortunately, public awareness about the Labs — even in Washington — is relatively low. Harkening back to the secrecy of their atomic energy research roots, the Labs quietly work on government-funded research that often cannot be found anywhere else in the United … Read the rest

Yes, the train is real. Time to start Part 2 of Energy Innovation Across America!

A Train Ride Tour of Energy Innovation Across America

In August, I took part in the Millennial Trains Project, a cross-country train tour of seven cities in ten days. The brain child of Georgetown grad Patrick Dowd, the trip brought together 24 millennial age (18-34) thinkers to facilitate their own unique, entrepreneurial projects via 1950’s era trains. My project, Energy Innovation Across America, aimed to bring the stories and perspectives of energy innovators from across the country back to Washington. With energy policy gridlock at an all-time high, I wanted to break out of the D.C. bubble and interact with those that are actually developing next-generation energy technologies.

If there is one immediate takeaway from trip: America is hard at work on clean energy innovations, big, small, and across a full range of low-carbon technologies. The level of creativity and idealism in the scientists and engineers working on new technologies was astounding to witness. Even so, it was clear how important public policy is to these innovators and their projects potential progress. Research budgets, commercialization financing gaps, regulations, and policy reform were common areas of discussion in every city I visited. I could take the energy innovation analyst … Read the rest

Construction at Vogtle Nuclear Plant

Nuclear Energy Innovation Big and Small Important to Climate Change

In the last week, two news stories really captured the potential future for nuclear energy. The New York Times Matthew Wald reported from Georgia, where construction crews are slowly building the first two new nuclear reactors in thirty years. And National Geographic’s Will Ferguson reported from Tennessee that engineers and scientists are taking core samples and mapping regional geology as part of the early planning stages of building the first small modular nuclear reactor in the world. Both projects face unique challenges, yet they both represent the beginning of two potential nuclear paths for reducing climate-warming carbon emissions in the United States (and potentially the world).

Big-Box Nuclear Energy Innovation in Georgia

The nuclear generators we are all familiar with is physically recognized by large, curved cooling towers and billowing white steam, and pragmatically recognized as a significant source of carbon-free electricity. Big-box nuclear reactors across the United States provide about 19 percent of all electricity.

But for thirty years, the nuclear energy industry has remained stagnant. Due to a mix of factors including more stringent regulation, rising construction costs, falling fossil fuel prices, and the Three Mile Island meltdown, … Read the rest

OffshoreWind

What Interior’s Lease Auction Says about Offshore Wind Innovation

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.

The federal government, partnered with coastal states, recognizes this challenge and is implementing a … Read the rest

Landscape

Making Sense of Government Energy Innovation Policy through Lawn Care

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 … Read the rest

640px-The_Pentagon_US_Department_of_Defense_building

The Impact of Budget Sequestration on DOD Energy Innovation

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
  • Read the rest