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The Gloves Are Off: $105 Million Greenbacks For US Solar Energy Industry

The Trump Administration talks a good game for fossil fuels but continues to fund solar energy research leading to the death of fossil fuels. What’s up with that?

Just when you thought the US Department of Energy was dialing down its support for solar energy, here it comes with a $105 million round of funding for projects aimed at pushing the coal industry right out of the power generation market. For that matter, the Energy Department seems to have its sights set on straight-arming natural gas and nuclear energy out of the picture, too.

Surprised? We are, too — kind of.

What’s All This About Solar Energy Grid Integration?

President* Trump’s new tariff on photovoltaic modules had solar energy fans worried for a while, but the new round of funding is a good sign of, well, good things to come.

Admittedly, it’s a drop in the bucket compared to the largesse lavished on failed fossil fuel projects (how ’bout that FutureGen “clean” coal plant or for that matter, the Vogtle nuclear power disaster).

However, a little goes a long way in the solar field. The cash infusion is aimed at early stage research that promises a big bang for the buck if all goes according to plan.

The Energy Department anticipates funding around 70 projects in four main areas.

Not surprisingly, the biggest slice of the pie (up to $46 million) will go to projects aimed at the “seamless integration of solar energy onto the nation’s electricity grid.”

Here’s the rationale for that expenditure of taxpayer resources from the Energy Department:

By supporting advances in power electronics, solar plus storage, and PV-integrated sensor technologies, the work will help ensure a smooth transition to a secure, reliable, and resilient grid of the future.

Do tell! Since taking over the reins at the Energy Department last spring, Perry has made a big show out of supporting the Commander-in-Chief’s attempts to prop up the US coal and nuclear energy industries.  He’s also made himself look ridiculous by hedging on climate change. However, at the same time Perry has been a vociferous advocate for renewables, regularly peppering the Intertubes with press releases and social media shoutouts for wind and solar energy.

A couple of days ago we noticed that Perry was toning down his renewable energy activity, but we figured he was just playing possum while the federal budget hearings were going on.

What do you think? If you have any thoughts on that, leave us a note in the comment thread.

Concentrating Solar Power Is Still A Thing

Why it seems like only yesterday that concentrating solar power was getting the bum’s rush: too expensive, too complicated, too delicate, and anyways what’s the point?

Well, it looks like CSP fans are getting the last laugh. The CSP field is growing globally, and the massive Shams I CSP plant in Abu Dhabi demonstrates that the technology can function efficiently even in harsh desert conditions.

The Energy Department was a strong supporter of CSP under the Obama Administration, and the agency has continued to root for CSP under Perry’s weird but apparently effective stewardship (he did pretty good in the 2018 budget, for one thing).

The new round of funding builds on that commitment. A full $24 million will go to about 21 projects aimed at achieving the Energy Department’s 2030 goals for CSP, including the marker of 5 cents per kilowatt hour in combination with 12 hours or more hours of on site storage.

PV Shares The Love

If you thought 5 cents per kilowatt hour was pretty good, look what the Energy Department has in store for photovoltaic technology. The allocation for PV is $27 million for about 28 projects:

These projects support early-stage research to increase performance, reduce materials and processing costs, and improve reliability of PV cells, modules, and systems. These projects support DOE’s efforts to lower LCOE to $0.03 per kilowatt hour from utility-scale systems by 2030, which is half the cost of utility-scale solar today.


Solar Energy And Jobs, Jobs, Jobs

As one way of measuring the potential pain inflicted by the new tariff, industry stakeholders anticipated the loss of up to 80,000 solar jobs this year. That worst case scenario hasn’t actually panned out. In fact, most of the damage seemed to have happened last year, when nobody knew what was going to happen with the tariff. That uncertainty most likely contributed to a falloff in solar energy jobs compared to the peak year of 2016.

This year, as Bloomberg reports, the solar industry is on track to recover to the 2016 job level and perhaps surpass it by a small margin.

With that in mind, let’s look at the $8.5 million budgeted for about four solar job projects:

These projects will pursue innovative initiatives that prepare the solar industry for a digital future while also increasing the number of veterans and participants in the solar industry.

Within each of the technology areas, DOE will fund projects that develop and test new ways to accelerate the integration of emerging technologies into the solar industry value chain and expand private sector engagement supporting energy innovation, especially those related to financing and commercialization.

Did you catch that thing about veterans? Like the wind industry, the solar industry has been actively courting US military veterans. Today’s high tech warfighter has experience and training that dovetails with the needs of the solar industry. That goes for digitization as well as other more traditional skills.

The Energy Department already has a willing partner in the Department of Defense. Last year, for example, the US Navy launched a new technology internship program that taps into veterans’ skills in the solar energy field among other areas.

So, there’s that. Now that those budget hearings are over, we’re looking forward to hearing more about renewable energy from the Energy Department.

Here’s one hint we won’t be disappointed: that $105 funding announcement wasn’t just some random press release under the Energy Department label. Perry took ownership of this one. Check out the headline…

U.S. Secretary of Energy Rick Perry Announces $105 Million in New Funding to Advance Solar Technologies

…and, here’s the money quote from the Energy Secretary himself:

American ingenuity is the engine of our energy economy. Investing in all of our abundant energy sources, including solar technologies, will help to drive down costs and ensure that the nation leads the world in energy production and innovation.

You do you, Rick Perry.

Follow me on Twitter.

*As of this writing.

Image (cropped, doubled) via US Department of Energy.

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Written By

Tina specializes in military and corporate sustainability, advanced technology, emerging materials, biofuels, and water and wastewater issues. Views expressed are her own. Follow her on Twitter @TinaMCasey and Google+.


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