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BLM Should Re-Think its Failed Solar Auction to Drive Innovation

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.

The auction outcome took DOI and solar advocates by surprise because the leases were such a good deal and there is significant interest in solar development in Colorado. Leases were offered at fairly low starting bonus bid minimums ($3,352; $4,035; and $4,284 … Read the rest

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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

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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

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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

2013 ARGONNE SUSTAINABILITY TEACHERS WORKSHOP

ARPA-E Rethinks Electric Vehicle Batteries

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, andGRIDS, 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.

The program recognizes that significant breakthroughs in battery chemistry and vehicle architecture are crucial for EVs to compete with internal combustion vehicles. In response, most of the RANGE projects consider alternative … Read the rest

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Pilot Projects for Inspiring Utility Innovation

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.

Conventional policy suggests that utilities must be regulated into conforming to a renewable future. The Maryland study indicates … Read the rest

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Adding Energy Innovation to the FAIR Act

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 … Read the rest