Meet America’s Next Top Energy Innovators

These companies are working on better batteries, engines that guzzle less gas, and materials to make more fuel-efficient cars.

At the cutting edge of energy technology, batteries are a big deal. Although innovators are constantly tweaking, slowly increasing the efficiency of solar panels and redesigning wind turbine blades, technologies for creating clean energy generally work well. The problem is that they don’t work all the time. And that means that in order to transition the country away from oil and coal, the energy industry is going to need bigger, better, and cheaper batteries.

That's why at this week's Energy Innovation Summit convened by the Advanced Research Projects Agency - Energy, participants are showcasing high-energy lithium batteries, zinc-manganese dioxide batteries, and soluble lead flow batteries, alongside dozens of other energy storage, carbon capture, building efficiency, and biofuel technologies. Although Congress has been reluctant to fund ARPA-E at the levels the White House and business leaders like Bill Gates think the agency deserves, it’s managed to push forward clean-energy technology. Just last weekend, Envia Systems, an ARPA-E grant recipient, announced it had succeeded in making a rechargeable battery that would cut the cost of an electric car battery by 45 percent.

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Obama's Budget Could Increase Clean Energy Funding by One-Third

The budget may not pass through Congress, but it shows Obama's commitment to renewable energy

Obama with Secretary of Energy Steven Chu

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Solar Power Is Coming to 120,000 Military Housing Units

SolarCity found a new path forward after the Solyndra scandal cost it a loan guarantee for putting solar panels on military housing.

The Solyndra scandal was a political football, but it also created real tangles for other solar companies. More than one withdrew from the Department of Energy’s loan guarantee program, which had backed the failed company. At least one company, though, has bounced back. SolarCity, a leading solar leasing company, announced today that, even without the government’s backing, it had been able to secure private financing for SolarStrong, a project which aims to power as many as 120,000 military housing units.

SolarCity had been trying since 2010 to get the government to guarantee a loan, and in September, the Department of Energy gave the company a conditional commitment for a loan of $344 million. Energy Secretary Steven Chu announced that the SolarStrong project would be “the largest domestic residential rooftop solar project in history.” SolarCity planned to install more residential solar capacity over the course of the project than had been installed in all of 2010. But the DOE was dealing with the fallout from Solyndra's failure, and by the end of the month, SolarCity hadn’t received final approval for its loan guarantee when the loan guarantee program ended.

“We just ran out of time,” says Aaron Gillmore, vice president of development at SolarCity. “Things got pretty hectic there at the end. DOE had other things to worry about, and there were too many projects in the pipeline.”

But the year the company had spent putting together a loan application paid off. Bank of America Merrill Lynch had been interested in funding the SolarStrong project. The bank has warmed distributed solar generation projects like this one, which have limited risks and use proven technology, and this year also funded a similar endeavor, Project Amp, which will install solar panels on distribution facilities across the country. (That project did receive a DOE loan guarantee.) When SolarCity’s loan guarantee didn’t come through, the bank kept talking with the company and ultimately agreed to provide financing.

This ending is happier than one in which the government underwrites SolarCity’s loans. Missing out on a loan guarantee was probably “better for us and better for the industry, to be able to prove we can do the project at scale without a government loan guarantee,” Gillmore says. Renewable energy needs support from both the public and the private sector right now, and both contributed here. According to Gillmore, the loan application process pushed SolarCity to do extensive due diligence and helped reassure the bank that the company’s idea was a strong one. The Department of Defense’s commitment to increasing its renewable energy holdings also helped move the project forward. It’s becoming clear that solar projects are smart, not risky, investments—the kind the private sector should buy into without a government safety net.

Photo via (cc) Flickr user U.S. Army Environmental Command

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For Energy Department, More Green Cars, Less Next-Next-Generation Technology

The Department of Energy did a little soul-searching and found it was focusing too much on futuristic ideas.

The Department of Energy today released its first Quadrennial Technology Review, a future-looking document that required the department to go through the bureaucratic equivalent of cleaning out its closet and rethinking its wardrobe. It found was that it had been spending too much money on clothes it might never actually wear (like forward-thinking clean energy technology) and not enough on practical shoes (like transportation). In government speak, the Department of Energy thinks the country has “underinvested in the transportation sector.”

The department’s new strategy is to focus on technologies that have a strong chance of jumping over the “valley of death”—the time between a pilot project and commercial demonstrations when new technologies tend to suffocate from lack of funding—within the next 10 years. Fuel efficiency technologies and electric vehicles have a greater likelihood of clearing the hump than ambitious clean energy or building efficiency projects, according to the department’s analysis. For starters, the Department argues, “buildings last longer than vehicles.” Cars spend an average of about 15 years in active use; buildings and power plants live for decades. If the government wants to change energy use quickly, it should focus on changing it in the sector where people are going to need new products, the department said.

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