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Published on December 26th, 2017 | by Tina Casey

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A $100 Million Shot At Glory For US Renewable Energy, Energy Efficiency

December 26th, 2017 by  


The last time CleanTechnica checked in on ARPA-E, things did not look so good for the Energy Department’s cutting-edge research funding agency. ARPA-E helped accelerate the renewable energy revolution during the Obama Administration, but President* Trump put it on the chopping block for next year’s budget.

Fortunately it looks like the report of ARPA-E’s death was an exaggeration. The agency has just announced that it is soliciting new submissions for its OPEN “transformative” energy program. If all goes well, OPEN will have a new round of $100 million to distribute among new projects next year.

$100 Million For Renewable Energy + Other Stuff…

The OPEN program seeks out transformational projects that don’t exactly fit into other Energy Department programs, but do complement other areas of research. The idea is to focus federal dollars on projects that promise an outsized impact for a relatively modest investment.

The 2015 round of funding shot $125 million into 10 project areas, all having to do with renewable energy or energy efficiency:

…building efficiency, industrial processes and waste heat, data management and communication, wind, solar, tidal and distributed generation, grid scale storage, power electronics, power grid system performance, vehicle efficiency, storage for electric vehicles, and alternative fuels and bio-energy.

Don’t get too excited all at once. The  energy efficiency angle covers a lot of territory, so past rounds of OPEN have included a healthy dose of fossil fuel projects.

For example, the 2015 OPEN roster included projects aimed at gasmobile engines, gas-powered electricity generation, and gas-to-liquid fuel conversion.

On the other hand, the 2015 OPEN awardees list was also peppered with renewable energy projects, including a cutting edge electrohydrodynamic system for harvesting offshore wind energy by leveraging positively charged airborne water droplets, so there’s that.

Considering the Trump administration’s focus on fossil fuel development, it’s possible that the 2018 OPEN round could shrink the representation of renewables. The $25 million dip in funding ($100 million for 2018 compared to $125 million for the 2015 round) isn’t a particularly good sign either.

Nevertheless, fingers crossed. Energy Secretary Rick Perry didn’t signal any significant shift in focus in the funding solicitation announcement for OPEN. He emphasized the Energy Department’s national security mission and invited innovators to “show us the next breakthrough in energy security.”

You could read just about anything into that statement, though if the US Department of Defense has any say in the matter of national security then things are looking good for renewable energy.

The funding announcement also noted that the 2018 round will seek innovations “across the full spectrum of energy applications.” The OPEN web page further explains:

A broad variety of projects will be welcomed, and examples include electricity generation by both renewable and non-renewable means; electricity transmission, storage, and distribution; energy efficiency for buildings, manufacturing and commerce, and personal use; and all aspects of transportation, including the production and distribution of both renewable and non-renewable fuels, electrification, and transportation energy efficiency.

The deadline for submitting concept papers is February 12, 2018 so if you have any bright ideas send ’em in.

It Ain’t Over ‘Til It’s Over

On a less positive note, even if OPEN is open for business, awardees could have trouble squeezing their dollars out of the Energy Department.

That’s what happened to another group of Energy Department projects this year. During the first months of the Trump administration, the Energy Department held back $91 million in funds already in the awards pipeline.

Fortunately, on December 12th, the federal General Accounting Office ruled that the withholding was illegal. That finding may have spurred Energy Secretary Rick Perry to grease the wheels for the new $100 million round, which was announced just one day later, on December 13.

Renewable Energy + Other Stuff

To be clear, ARPA-E (Advanced Research Projects Agency – Energy) is in the business of pushing the envelope on energy research, renewable or not.

For example, earlier this year ARPA-E announced a $20 million round of funding for advanced  nuclear energy projects and $20 million for natural gas projects.

Renewable energy also got a share in the ARPA-E love this year, with millions to continue the MARINER macroalgae project.

It’s also worth noting that ARPA-E is just one of many Energy Department programs that provides funding to accelerate the renewable energy transition. To cite just one example, just last week the Energy Department announced a new $12 million round of funding aimed at solar grid integration. Among other key sectors, micro wind turbines and offshore wind farms also got a slice of the Energy Department pie.

Meanwhile, although most analysts predict a slight uptick in coal production next year, that doesn’t necessarily translate into more coal jobs.

The US coal industry has been decoupling employment from production for generations, relying more on machinery and explosives, and less on human labor.

In any case, the Trump administration has done nothing to stem the loss of coal-related jobs at power plants. Dozens of coal generating units and entire power plants have shut down this year. The latest example is the shutdown of one of four coal units at the San Juan coal power plant in New Mexico.

As reported by the Desert Sun, the shutdown is part of a strategy aimed at reducing haze impacting local national parks including Bandelier National Monument, the Grand Canyon in Arizona, and Arches National Park in Utah.

With the San Juan unit knocked out, that leaves only one more unit at the same plant and two other out-of-state coal power plants selling electricity into California.

California is a huge market for coal to abandon, and it’s not the only one. New England’s shrinking coal population is also set to diminish into nothing, thanks partly to a proposed hydropower transmission line and 400-megawatt offshore wind farm.

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*Errrr….

Image: Marine power via Accio Energy.


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About the Author

specializes in military and corporate sustainability, advanced technology, emerging materials, biofuels, and water and wastewater issues. Tina’s articles are reposted frequently on Reuters, Scientific American, and many other sites. Views expressed are her own. Follow her on Twitter @TinaMCasey and Google+.



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