When the BP oil spill happened right around this time last year, Triple Pundit asked if the Obama Administration would deliver on its promise of transitioning the U.S. out of high risk fuels and into cleaner, safer forms of energy. Despite pushback against renewable energy from some legislators at the state and federal level, that question has been answered through a number of new energy initiatives, some of which focus on promoting local economic growth, opening up new opportunities for small businesses, and creating new green jobs.The latest initiative addresses the R&D end of the spectrum, consisting of a $130 million grant to be split among five new areas of clean energy research. The monies come through ARPA-E, the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy.
ARPA-E and the Transition out of Fossil Fuels
ARPA-E was created during the Bush administration, but the agency was not funded until the Obama administration took up the reins. It’s modeled after DARPA, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, also known as the government-funded program that created the Internet as we know it today. Like its military counterpart, ARPA-E is charged with funding cutting edge research that could result in a quantum leap to the next stage of technology, not just to produce mere increments in efficiency. The government funding is meant to act as seed money to attract private investors, and it works. Last month, ARPA-E announced that six of its other clean energy projects have attracted more than $100 million in private capital investment.
New Fuels, New Energy Storage
One new area of research is called Plants Engineered to Replace Oil. This takes biofuel crops into the realm of bioengineering, something that companies like OPXBIO have already been exploring under other ARPA-E funding. A second new area, High Energy Advanced Thermal Storage, seeks cost-effective technologies that dramatically raise the efficiency of energy storage, enabling intermittent sources (namely, solar and wind) to achieve the kind of predictability that gives fossil fuels their primary advantage. Advances in this area would also help to increase the range of electric vehicle batteries.
Alternatives to Scarce Materials
One drawback of current renewable energy technologies is their reliance on rare earths. These minerals are useful because of their unusual magnetic properties, but global supplies are limited, prices are rising, and markets can be manipulated. For U.S. manufacturers to compete, especially in regard to electric vehicle motors and wind power generators, low cost domestic alternatives need to be developed. That is the goal of the third funding area, Rare Earth Alternatives in Critical Technologies (who thinks up these names, anyways?)
I Dream of GENI
The fourth area, Green Electricity Network Integrations, addresses the need for new smart grid technology that replaces aging components of the nation’s energy transmission network and reduces the frequency of power outages. The new technology is also needed to manage the rapidly increasing amount of intermittent power sources (namely, again, wind and solar) coming into the grid.
Solar Energy as Cheap as Fossil Fuels
Overlapping the Department of Energy’s SunShot initiative, the Solar Agile Delivery of Electrical Power Technology area focuses on utility-scale solar power plants that could produce electricity at about six cents per kilowatt hour. Not only would that compete with fossil fuels across the board, it would easily beat them in high-cost areas of the U.S. that also rely on nuclear power generation. It seems that when the Obama administration talks about transformational energy, nuclear power is just as old hat as coal, oil, and natural gas. More to the point, a national grid that provides clean, low cost energy across the U.S. would enable businesses to pull energy costs out of the mix when deciding on the most efficient region in which to locate.
Image: Power lines by Manu_H on flickr.com.