By Amanda McCrum
Transformative technologies are fundamentally driving the acceleration of the clean energy field. From more efficient solar photovoltaics and larger wind turbines, to grid-scale energy storage and small, high-capacity electric vehicle batteries – innovative technologies continue to develop the clean energy industry and increase cost-effectiveness for consumers.
Imagine the amount of time and resources invested into the creation of Tesla’s new “Powerwall” battery, unveiled last month. According to Fortune Magazine, Tesla’s battery technology has been in development for at least five years, and it has cost millions of dollars to bring this idea to market, but is expected to make a profit filling a significant gap in the energy storage market.
The path that a technology takes from an inventor’s idea to a usable product is a long one, and often involves many unsuccessful attempts. It’s often said that Thomas Edison tried 1,000 times to invent the light bulb, but his ingenuity and perseverance eventually led to one of the most transformative technologies of modern life. Today, university research departments and technology incubators are significant cultivators of the scientific process. Through trial and error, Thomas Edison developed a working light bulb, and this process used by inventors is vital in the development process of new energy technologies. That’s why funding and enrollment in science and engineering are essential drivers of new innovation.
The National Science Foundation (NFS) reported that, after several years of decline, the number of new students in United States science and engineering graduate programs grew in 2013, due in large part to foreign students. These students come to the US for the highly competitive and reputable research programs and facilities. University ties to national laboratories, such as the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) and National Energy Technology Laboratory (NETL), are important incentives for students to come to the US to pursue energy education and research. Foreign students also bring with them fresh ideas for energy solutions to problems they see in their home countries. These ideas combined with industry and funding for energy company startups have contributed to the transformation of clean energy in the US and around the world. (Editor’s Note: Remember that Tesla Motors superstar Elon Musk is from South Africa and initially came to the US to study at an Ivy League school.)
Critical to getting new technology from concept to market is to synchronize the “push” from universities with the “pull” of programmatic initiatives of well-funded government programs. This is traditionally attempted through competition for limited research funding grants. More recently, large government initiatives such as the Advanced Research Projects Agency — Energy (ARPA-E) have tweaked the competitive funding grant model by grouping opportunities under specific energy programs and seeking out high-potential, high-impact energy technologies. ARPA-E awardees also work with “Technology to Market” specialists who ensure the funding is used in meaningful ways that will help advance the technology to market readiness. (See CleanTechnica‘s extensive ARPA-E coverage.)
The Department of Energy’s SunShot Initiative is another US program that has focused on the gap between researchers’ innovative energy technology ideas and market readiness. The program provides funding for solar technology innovators on a competitive basis at the prototype stage and commercialization scale-up stage — where funding gaps exist in the pathway from concept to market. (See CleanTechnica‘s extensive SunShot coverage.)
The ARPA-E and DOE programs not only provide funding to innovative energy technologies at pivotal points in their path to the market; they also facilitate partnerships between university researchers and industry. Many industries have realized that they can greatly benefit by investing in clean energy technologies, and these partnerships will ultimately improve their bottom line and marketability.
The quest to improve electric vehicle battery technology is a good example of the long pathway a product takes from concept to market for technology innovations. Electric vehicle batteries have been plagued by high costs, low capacity, large size and weight, and poor cycleability (how many times the battery can be recharged). Concepts that are currently being explored to address these issues include two University of Maryland–based research teams, funded by ARPA-E’s “Robust Affordable Next Generation Energy Storage Systems” (RANGE) program, which focuses on improvement of battery chemistry. The Maryland researchers are seeking to design a low-cost, high-energy-density solid battery and a hybridized aqueous battery. These research groups collaborate and often share their findings with each other and the larger battery research community. Keeping such open communication helps to improve research effectiveness and ultimately improves the chances that these concepts will become viable solutions to the current problems facing electric vehicle battery technology.
It is difficult to know the total cost and how long it will take to develop and bring an innovative clean energy technology to full market readiness. That’s why incremental change is often all that consumers are aware of, as it has been less costly to improve upon technology designs that are already integral parts of the clean energy market. In time, history will consider the progress of clean energy technologies with the same perspective that current generations look back upon the evolution of the television and the cell phone. Fresh ideas, coupled with supportive funding will help to improve and advance energy technology in the U.S. In due course, clean energy will be as ubiquitous and inexpensive as fossil-based energy technologies, someday possibly replacing fossil fuels altogether.
About the Author: Amanda McCrum is a Fellow with the Clean Energy Leadership Institute (http://cleanenergyleaders.
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