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Department of Energy

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

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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

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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

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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,

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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 

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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

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Climate Hawks Should Aggressively Support the America COMPETES Act

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?

In my

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DOE Proposes Expanding High Impact Energy Innovation Incubator Program

Buried in the President’s FY2014 budget proposal is an interesting reform that could impact energy innovation without relying on Congress for any new – and hard to come by – federal investments. The idea is to create eight new research incubator programs at the Department of Energy that forge collaborations with early-stage start-ups to bring promising new ideas closer to commercial scale. In particular, the incubators would focus on promising technology pathways DOE is not currently investing in.

The incubator programs would be housed within each of the energy technology offices (except for geothermal) and leverage a small share of existing research budgets. The figure below provides the proposed budgets for the new incubators. (Note, the DOE is also continuing its existing solar incubator program.)

IncubatorChart

Each incubator is expressly aimed at emerging areas of research and technology development not “supported in any meaningful” way by existing DOE projects.

For example, the Vehicle Technologies Program wants to focus on advanced power electronics and electric motor ideas. The Advanced Manufacturing Program wants to invest in “revolutionary” technology pathways that cut energy-use in production, but also make U.S. manufacturers more competitive. And the

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Obama’s Budget Boosts Support for Energy Innovation

President Obama released his long-awaited FY2014 budget request and while it’s unlikely the budget will be taken up by Congress in its entirety, it remains an important document. Namely, the proposal is significant because it steadfastly argues that America can continue to support next-generation industries like clean energy. In fact, the President’s proposal budgets for a number of high-profile, high-impact programs, including those aimed at growing the domestic clean energy manufacturing sector, reduce transportation fuel use, and calls on Congress to fund a new Energy Innovation Hub to transform the electricity grid.

Across the board, the FY2014 request boosts key energy innovation offices at DOE by about 15 percent compared to the FY2013 Continuing Resolution and seven percent higher than the President’s FY2013 request. The lion’s share of budget gains are aimed at the Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy (EERE), which would see a budget increase of 54 percent from FY2013 CR levels, and at the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E),  which would see a budget increase of 46 percent.

Expanding Research Capabilities in Advanced Energy Manufacturing

The largest budget increase target at EERE – 22 percent to

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Solyndra

Principles of Government Investment in Enterprises

Whether it’s direct equity investments made by government-backed venture funds at DoD or the CIA, loan guarantees to established small and medium-sized SME manufacturers, export credit financing assistance to U.S. exporters, loans to rural broadband providers, bailouts of large banks or automakers, or loans to solar energy companies, the U.S. government makes direct or indirect investments in hundreds of enterprises annually. Moreover, state and local governments engage in business financing as well. And notwithstanding the Solyndra kerfuffle, given the serious challenges the U.S. economy faces, these types of government interventions to support individual firms could very well increase, not decrease, in the future. In fact, in many cases, these types of government investments are critical to boosting American innovation, economic growth, international competitiveness and job creation. Nonetheless, the potential benefits of government investments in firms shouldn't give policymakers carte blanche ability to invest in any and all enterprises. ... Read the rest