Renewables Research, Development at Risk Under White House Plan

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By Bobby Magill

Clean energy startup Packetized Energy co-founder Mads Almassalkhi and his team at the University of Vermont received a $1.4 million Energy Department award in 2017 to research how utilities can operate their grids more effectively after adding solar power generation.

Almassalkhi told Bloomberg Environment that funding for the research, awarded through the DOE’s Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy, would have been difficult to obtain were it not for the agency’s support for research and development of emerging renewables technologies.

Support for the development of new clean energy technologies, however, may be at risk under a draft White House budget proposal for fiscal year 2019 that would cut the office’s budget by 72 percent to $575.5 million in 2019 from $2.03 billion in 2017.

Researchers and startups fear the cut, if enacted, could slow down the necessary research for utilities to use more wind, solar and other clean energy and modernize the nation’s electric grid.

The Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy’s programs are wide-ranging, focusing on wind and solar energy technology development, hydrogen fuel cell research, developing energy efficiency measures for homes and buildings, and, among many other initiatives, organizing the annual Solar Decathlon, an annual solar-powered home design competition for college students.

The office’s work helps utilities find technology that will help them accommodate greater demand for wind and solar, said Almassalkhi, an assistant professor of electrical engineering at the University of Vermont.

“DOE is helping in investing in risky technologies to help utilities make better decisions,” he said.

Energy: Renewables Remain Priority

Department spokeswoman Shaylyn Hynes told Bloomberg Environment that she can’t comment on a budget that has not yet been released, but renewables remain a priority. Bloomberg Environment obtained a copy of the budget proposal Jan. 31.

“Last year, the Energy Department awarded hundreds of millions of dollars to solar and wind energy,” she said. “The truth is that Secretary [Rick] Perry believes that there is a role for all fuels—including renewables—in our energy mix.”

Vincent DeVito, energy counselor to Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, also said last month that the administration is working “quite aggressively” to increase renewable energy use.

Both Republicans and Democrats were critical of the proposed cuts to the Energy Department for fiscal 2018, and the Trump budget has not been enacted by Congress. The government is currently operating on a continuing resolution at fiscal 2017 levels until Feb. 8.

Helping U.S. Solar Compete

Energy’s funding for renewables research ensures that good ideas receive funding and high-caliber researchers are trained to develop new cutting-edge technology in the U.S., Owen Hildreth, a professor in Arizona State University’s School for Engineering of Matter, Transport and Energy, told Bloomberg Environment.

Hildreth received a $1.4 million grant from the Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy in 2017 to research a method that would reduce the amount of silver required in solar panels. The technique would allow solar panel manufacturers to drastically cut costs and space needed to make solar photovoltaic cells.

Hildreth said his and others’ research funded with Energy grants helps U.S.-based manufacturers compete with foreign solar panel makers whose costs are often lower.

“If we don’t fund it, it’s all going to end up in China,” he said.

U.S. Offshore Wind

Funding for offshore wind research and development could be at risk if the cuts are enacted, Jose Zayas, vice president of Cube Hydro and former director of the DOE’s Wind Energy Technologies Office under President Barack Obama, told Bloomberg Environment.

Offshore wind has been expanding in Europe for more than a decade, and European developers such as Statoil and Orsted are investing heavily in offshore wind in the U.S. But Zayas said offshore wind farms built in the U.S. face different challenges than they do in Europe, such as having to withstand hurricanes.

The Office of Renewable Energy and Energy Efficiency works with the wind industry to develop solutions to those problems.

“You can’t just take European technology and assume it’s going to work here,” Zayas said. “Why would a company make this kind of investment if the U.S. is not showing it’s interested in that?”

Deep budget cuts to the office are unlikely to affect onshore wind development because developers can afford to conduct their own research and development, Jeremy Firestone, director of the Center for Carbon-free Power Integration at the University of Delaware, told Bloomberg Environment.

Student Research: Solar Decathlon

As for solar, Energy’s energy efficiency programs such as the Solar Decathlon help spur renewables innovation, Mike Binder, an architect and a faculty adviser to the University of Maryland’s 2017 Solar Decathlon team, told Bloomberg Environment.

“There is a lot of research that goes on at the university level that is related to the Solar Decathlon,” Binder said. “It would hurt a lot of those research programs into renewable energy if we didn’t have a concrete example to apply it to, which is Solar Decathlon.”

Students apply lessons they have learned designing solar-powered homes when they join the workforce, he said.

“By cutting the funding, you’re basically getting rid of that highly trained workforce,” Binder said.

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