New US Solar Energy Research Deals Another Body Blow To Coal

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Et tu, Brute! The US coal industry suffered through another round of bankruptcy and bad news this week, and it looks like the Trump administration is determined to give it one last, hard push over the cliff. The US Department of Energy has just announced another round of funding aimed at driving the cost of solar energy down, down, down.

SolarTAC test facility in Aurora, CO (credit: Dennis Scroeder/NREL)

That’s quite a switcheroo from the rosy future for coal painted by President* Trump just a short while ago. His successful** 2016 campaign for the Oval Office pivoted around the promise of boom times for US coal miners. Instead, the new round of funding all but guarantees years of growth ahead for the US solar industry — at the expense of coal as well as natural gas and nuclear energy, too.

Wait, Why Is The Energy Department Still Promoting Solar Energy?

The new round of solar energy funding is just the latest in a rather aggressive series of renewable energy initiatives promoted by the Energy Department all throughout the Trump administration.

That may seem somewhat odd, considering those campaign promises. Well, blame the deep state. Or blame stakeholders in the US business sector. They have been clamoring for more wind and solar power now that costs have come down.

Pressure from US consumers is also motivating businesses to hop on the solar energy bandwagon, and top players in the financial sector are beginning to shed coal investments in favor of renewable energy.

Whoever is to blame, the new round of solar funding hammers home the futility of  a coal comeback.

Many Paths To More & Better Solar Energy

The new round totals $3.2 million from the Energy Department’s Technology Commercialization Fund. That might not sound like much compared to the cost of staging a private party in Washington, DC on the 4th of July, but a little goes a long way with the help of solar industry stakeholders.

The money will go to the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, which will deploy it to match approximately the same amount in private sector funding for 11 projects.

As a group, the 11 projects aim at key flex points in the cost of renewable energy, energy efficiency and bio-based chemicals.

The projects dealing with solar energy dig deep into opportunities for reducing solar costs. The soup-to-nuts approach includes “DUSST,” a partnership between NREL and the companies First Solar, Groundwork Renewables Inc., and  Atonometrics Inc. DUSST aims to help keep solar arrays running at peak efficiency by keeping the solar panels clean, without running into excessive costs.

On the manufacturing and materials sides, some of the new funding will go to scale up a low cost thin film process developed by the company ALD NanoSolutions, and the company Swift Solar will be working on a new flexible perovskite solar cell for mobile use (perovskite is a low cost alternative to silicon).

Moving along to the grid connection side, Triangle Microworks got tapped for a new interoperability tool for inverters. That’s another aspect of solar energy with a significant influence on costs (inverters transfer the DC output from solar cells into an AC current).

Rounding out the picture is the issue of local permitting, inspection, and grid connection regulations. These administrative processes can add thousands of dollars to the total installed cost of a rooftop array.

Yes, thousands. Even worse, these processes can delay a project to the point where a solar customer gives up and backs out of the deal, saddling the installer with the expense.

The Energy Department already supports several solar programs aimed at untangling some of the red tape. The new funding will go to support a program called SolarApp, for “Solar Automated Permit Software.”

About 20,000 (yes, 20,000) local, state, and federal agencies in the US have jurisdiction over solar installations. SolarApp aims to wrangle them into one streamlined, online permitting portal. The idea is to make it possible for almost “instantaneous” approval of routine rooftop solar installations. That largely solves the customer back-out problem while also potentially cutting costs for local agencies. Energy storage is also included in the initiative.

Whither coal?

To be clear, the Department of Energy is also barreling forward with other programs in support of coal, oil, gas, and nuclear. However, the force of competition from renewable energy is beginning to make those efforts moot, at least where coal is concerned (natural gas is a whole ‘nother can of worms).

Take this week, for example. On Monday, the coal company Blackwater abruptly closed and slammed the door shut on 600 workers at two mines in Wyoming’s Powder River Basin, an epicenter of US coal production.

As of this writing, Blackwater might be able to resume operating under bankruptcy. Meanwhile, reports suggest the company is behind on payments to workers’ health and retirement plans.

Another large coal company in the Powder River basin, Cloud Peak, recently declared bankruptcy and has been struggling to stay in operation. The company can’t seem to find a buyer, and last week two major competitors in the Powder River basin formed a joint venture that will make it even more difficult to unload.

According to the Casper Star Tribune (please follow the link an support local journalism), the unusual — and apparently, desperate — deal is aimed at cutting costs for the two top-producing mines in the world, Peabody Coal’s North Antelope Rochelle mine and Arch Coal’s Black Thunder mine.

The joint venture will enable the two companies to avoid the high cost of shutting down the mines (yes, it costs money to close a mine), but that still leaves redundant workers to hit the unemployment line.

Oh, well.

On the bright side, employment in the renewable energy sector is growing. CleanTechnica is reaching out to The Solar Foundation, which partners with the Energy Department on job-creating solar initiatives, for some insights on the opportunities and challenges involved in retraining Powder River’s workforce for a more sustainable future.

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*Developing story.

**Success has many fathers.

Photo: US Department of Energy, National Renewable Energy Laboratory photo gallery (credit: Dennis Schroeder / NREL).

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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.

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