Clean Energy Innovation Roundup (1-6-2012)

Here are some of the top clean energy innovation-related news stories, analysis, and commentary from the last week (and some from the holiday break):

Emerging innovations key to driving down cost of clean energy in 2012 and beyond. McKinsey Quarterly (reg. req.) provides its top 5 clean tech innovations to watch in 2012 including next-gen utility-scale storage, advanced ICT-enabled power conversion systems, new energy efficient air conditioning and window technologies, $2/gallon algae-based fuels, and significantly cheaper CCS. 

And efforts to make these breakthroughs a reality are already in development.  The Carbon Capture Simulation Initiative – a national lab/university/industry partnership – are developing state-of-the-art simulation and modeling tools to accelerate the development of cheaper carbon capture technologies. A USC-led research group has developed a breakthrough absorbent technology that is more efficient at stripping carbon from coal smokestacks and could play a role in sucking CO2 out of the atmosphere. The Pennsylvania-based EOS Energy Storage is starting manufacturing on a utility-scale zinc-air rechargeable battery that has three times more capacity than a lithium equivalent and is much cheaper to produce. And a publically supported New Jersey solar start-up, Natcore, is implementing an innovative, new manufacturing process that will make solar cells more efficient at less cost. 

Rare-earth materials continue to have a significant impact in the clean economy. Many countries, including the U.S., are responding to China’s near-monopoly of rare-earth metals by jump-starting exploration and mining programs.  Even so, many rare-earths critical to wind, solar, and battery technology are in short supply and will be so at least the next 5-10 years.  The DOE is taking a proactive approach by investing in projects through ARPA-E and the new Critical Materials Innovation Hub to either reduce reliance on these materials or finding substitutes. For instance, nano-materials hold the promise of being a cheaper, more abundant, and higher performing substitute for silicon in solar as well as traditional materials used in battery storage.

U.S. clean energy policy continues to lag, potentially through 2012. ARPA-E’s Arun Majumdar highlights some of the key ways ARPA-E is trying to position the U.S. as global clean technology leader, but also notes that the U.S. is ranked 9th in total clean energy investments as a share of GDP and 11th in growth of total investments in the last 5 years. In his words, “it’s staggering how we are falling behind in terms of global competition.”

Making the U.S. a leader in the clean economy is going to require smart energy innovation policies as well as significant public investments.  But Adam Davidson at the NYT’s Magazine writes that, “Unfortunately, there isn’t much to prevent this trend. Overall government research spending (relative to GDP) has been heading down since…the 1960’s.” And with Stimulus investments in innovation drying up, it’s up to policymakers to reverse that trend.  Yet like 2011, there is little expectation by many that 2012 holds the promise for significant energy policies.

Yet this is stopping the emergence of innovative policy ideas. At the local level, some cities and towns are implementing so-called solar garden financing strategies that spread the cost of clean energy across entire communities and install them in sites like unused landfills.  Members “buy-in” to the project to tap into the solar energy and gain reductions in their electricity bill. And the smart folks at Science Progress call-out the need to reform how we fund University-led research to better allow new clean technologies and ideas to make it from lab to market through tech transfer and spinoff.

Clean energy innovation at DOD. The robust innovation ecosystem employed at DOD is a hotspot for advanced and emerging clean technologies.  Forbes highlights 12 clean tech projects currently under development and demonstration through DOD’s Environmental Security Technology Certification Program (ESTCP). These projects hold the possibility of spinning off into breakthrough commercial technologies in the future while serving the military’s sustainability goals. And in late December, the DOD took stock of its work with its Strategic Sustainability Performance Plan that discusses its improvements and achievements in meeting these energy and sustainability goals.

A blog battle over electric cars. Electric cars are taking a beating recently over recalls and technical malfunctions, but EV’s are still central to reducing carbon emissions from the transportation sector.  Car-blogger Joel Johnson notes the problem is that current-generation electric vehicles are costly and range limited largely due to inferior battery technology. Maggie Koerth-Baker at BoingBoing disagrees somewhat, commenting that current electric vehicle technology isn’t for everyone and for some it’s not so bad. Eventually, she does agree with Johnson that while EV’s are environmentally better than gasoline-powered cars, they’re still very limited without major cost and performance improvements. And according to David Rotman at Technology Review, those cost and performance improvements will come from breakthrough innovations in vehicle battery technology.

Solar advocates continue a vigorous debate on the U.S.-China Solar PV trade dispute. The SolarWorld led solar PV trade dispute with China has sparked a significant public debate among clean energy advocates. In one corner is President of the Coalition for Affordable Solar Energy Jigar Shah who argues that the trade dispute will only harm the U.S. solar industry by spurring counter disputes and ultimately a trade war. In the other corner, SolarWorld President Gordon Brinser responded by pointing out that all countries should play by the same international trade rules, so those that break the rules should be held accountable. Managing Director of Auriga Hari Chandra Polavarapu agrees with Brinser’s sentiment, noting that yes, Chinese policies have led to much lower solar PV prices, it has been at the cost of solar manufacturing bankruptcies that can be expected to expand throughout the industry.  Polavarapu’s solution – America should respond with a forward-looking national energy policy aimed at long-term competitiveness. For ITIF’s take, check out a panel discussion ITIF hosted on U.S.-China clean tech trade issues at our November Energy Innovation Conference (7th video down).

And I’ll leave you with a long, but informative youtube video from the American Geophysical Union 2011 Conference on the current understanding of impacts from climate change:

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About the author

Matthew Stepp is a Senior Analyst with the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation (ITIF) specializing in climate change and clean energy policy. His research interests include clean energy technology development, climate science policy development, transportation policy, and the role innovation has in economic growth.