US Energy Dept. Says: Let’s Science The #%@*! Out Of This (#CleanTechnica Interview)

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Hey, if Matt Damon can go from mopping the halls at MIT to growing potatoes on Mars, then someone, somewhere can figure out how to stabilize the climate of one little planet. With that in mind, let’s take a look at the new GCxN clean tech innovation accelerator, which the US Department of Energy’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory launched last September with a little help from Royal Dutch Shell (no, really!).

energy storage clean power

What Is This GCxN Energy Innovator Of Which You Speak?

GCxN is short for “Shell Game Changer Powered by NREL.” The basic idea is for Shell to provide financial support and let NREL do the rest.

Program manager Adam Duran of NREL graciously took some time out from his planet-saving duties last week to explain what’s going on to CleanTechnica.

“There have always been long term relationships between the national laboratories and industry stakeholders, but this one is unique. It’s a technology incubation approach,” Duran said. “Shell is our sponsor but they are letting NREL take the lead to identify promising startups, and then validate in the lab to determine if these technologies are viable and sustainable.”

Unlike other accelerators, NREL does not coach participants on business plans, and it doesn’t ask for a stake in the company. GCxN is designed to throw a lifeline to innovators who are staring down the mouth of the Valley of Death, meaning they have a great idea and no funding. Duran explains:

What makes everything go is that we’re tied into the entrepreneurial community. All too often a researcher will get their first grant in graduate school, but what do you do next? You have to piece things together, maybe with the help of things like small business grants. In contrast, we provide support for that great idea.

On Beyond Pumped Hydro Energy Storage

GCxN announced its first cohort of innovators last December, after NREL challenged startups to devise solutions on two themes. One was long duration, utility scale energy storage.

Currently the only available form of long duration, utility scale energy storage in the US is pumped hydro, which is generally source neutral. That’s not the greatest news for skeptics of nuclear energy’s role in the sparkling green future, aside from the whole fossil fuel thing.

For those of you new to the topic, pumped hydro literally involves pumping water uphill to an upper reservoir. When an extra jolt of hydroelectricity is needed, gravity ferries the water downhill to waiting turbines.

The tricky part is pumping the water uphill, which requires energy. Nuclear stakeholders like that idea. It provides a way to valuate all those atoms jostling around at night when ratepayer demand is low.

Nevertheless, renewables can take the bulk energy storage ball and run with it. Pumped hydro provides opportunities to soak up extra kilowatts from wind and solar farms during periods of low demand.

This is all well and good, but GCxN is looking way beyond pumped hydro for bulk storage. One idea that caught NREL’s eye last year was a zinc-based chemistry approach from Toronto based e-Zn. The other was a solar powered system from Antora Energy in California, which involves heating blocks of carbon.

NREL also threw down an innovation challenge for novel grid control systems. One winning idea in that category was a self-learning grid management system that works like a “mini beehive,” from the Israeli company Electrical Grid Monitoring Ltd. The other one, from California-based Feasible, Inc., is an acoustics-based system aimed at improving battery pack performance.

The themes for the next GCxN round are going to be fast charging and grid control, from home systems to microgrids, neighborhood grids, and on up to utility scale, so stay tuned for more this summer.

What’s Up With Shell?

Shell is not the only oil and gas legacy company to dip into the renewable energy revolution and other clean tech in recent years.

In fact, with some notable exceptions (looking at you, ExxonMobil), the global oil and gas industry is beginning to get super serious about ramping up the energy transition and branching out into electric vehicles, too.

“When you look at the strategy and actions of oil and gas companies, they are starting to see that a cost-inefficient competitor is now directly competitive,” Duran says. “They are getting more and more agnostic. Wherever the energy comes from, if it meets the customer’s needs in the market, they’re on it.”

It also helps that shareholders are beginning to get nervous about stranded assets, but that’s a whole ‘nother can of worms.

Clean Power In The USA

That point about customer demand is a big one, and we’re not just talking about your neighbor down the block. Here in the US, companies of epically big proportions are on the prowl for renewable energy. They are seeking out states where the pickings are good, and they are also figuring out ways to support clean power for smaller companies.

The demand for renewables among high profile companies is beginning to force top coal-producing states to diversify. Texas is one early example. Indiana is coming over to the renewable side, too.

One especially interesting example of the energy transition is the very topmost US coal state of Wyoming, where a sudden surge of interest in wind development has been fueled by demand for clean power in the neighboring state of Colorado.

If you’re wondering where oil and natural gas fit into this picture, that’s a good question. The US’s love affair with coal hit the skids when the natural gas fracking boom took off, along with an increase in oil production.

The good times for oil and gas are far from over in the US, but the magic shield may be about to crack. Last month, a federal judge blocked drilling on 300,000 acres of federal land in Wyoming, after determining that the Interior Department’s Bureau of Land Management had failed to consider climate change impacts.

Readers please note: To be clear, Shell is underwriting GXcN and its experts are working closely with the NREL team and with the companies involved in the initiative.

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Photo: “Metalized” energy storage via e-Zn.

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Tina Casey

Tina specializes in advanced energy technology, military sustainability, emerging materials, biofuels, ESG and related policy and political matters. Views expressed are her own. Follow her on LinkedIn, Threads, or Bluesky.

Tina Casey has 3234 posts and counting. See all posts by Tina Casey