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Research and Funding Needed to Advance U.S. Energy Innovation

2018 S&T Policy Forum - Stranded Innovation
From left, Warren Washington, Erin Heath, Tim Profeta, Varun Sivaram and David Hart participate in a panel on stranded innovations at the 2018 AAAS Science & Technology Policy Forum. | Mark Francis Jones/

Research investment and targeted policies are needed to prevent innovative energy technologies from languishing in the laboratory and being blocked from market entry, a panel of energy policy experts told the AAAS Science & Technology Policy Forum on June 21.

Technologies that improve the efficiency of existing solar panels and battery-powered energy storage systems for the electrical grid have advanced greatly beyond what is currently in place, said Varun Sivaram, the Philip D. Reed Fellow for Science and Technology at the Council on Foreign Relations, and David Hart, professor and director of the Center for Science, Technology and Innovation at George Mason University’s Schar School of Policy and Government.

The solar panel and grid-scale storage markets, however, are largely dominated by early technology entrants, creating barriers for new solar technologies to emerge, speakers said. More than 90% of solar photovoltaic panels are made of silicon and nearly 99% of grid-scale energy storage is powered by lithium ion batteries – both early technologies.

Abandoning promising technologies before they can be fully tested and developed for large scale use – a phenomenon known as stranded innovation – blunts needed innovation, Sivaram and Hart said. Take, for instance, solar panels made from a mineral called perovskite that could soon more efficiently convert sun power into energy or grid storage powered by flow batteries that can produce a stronger and longer lasting electric current. Both technologies show potential to produce more power and expand energy storage capacity, participants added.

“What we don’t want is for these technologies to be crushed before they mature. We’re going to need them down the road,” Hart said.

Investing in research and creating public policies that boost emerging technologies can avoid stranding these innovations, particularly since they can play a key role in reducing carbon emissions from the energy sector, the speakers noted.

Sivaram underscored that investment in basic research is important but of equal importance is support for applied research that helps move the latest technologies into the marketplace.

Investment should focus on each phase of the laboratory to market pathway, said Tim Profeta, director of the Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University. The initial phase involves research and development projects that translate basic research findings into new innovations, he said. The Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy, or ARPA-E, has funded energy projects in the “translational” phase since 2009, Profeta noted. President Donald Trump’s fiscal 2019 budget proposal calls for eliminating the program.

Profeta and Hart stressed the need for continued federal funding of energy and manufacturing demonstration projects, citing Cyclotron Road, a clean-energy collaboration between the Energy Department’s Lawrence Berkeley National Lab, the department’s Advanced Manufacturing Office and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) Microsystems Technology Office where researchers transform concepts into viable products. The Advanced Manufacturing Office also faces steep cuts in the president’s fiscal 2019 budget proposal, a 71% spending reduction.  

Funding for manufacturing innovations to ensure a technology is ready for commercialization is an area “the United States could still improve” upon, Profeta added. Several policy options such as tax incentives could help avert stranded innovation, the panelists said.

Incentives should be targeted to support emerging technology, Sivaram noted. Without specific provisions to support innovation technologies, government incentives would flow to the dominant energy players already in the market, he said.

“Mature technology is going to monopolize that incentive,” he said. “They’re ready for deployment in prime time, and so they will get the lion’s share of that investment.”

Hart also advocated “carving out” spaces for emerging technology. “States like California have required their utilities to put a certain amount of storage on the grid. One could take a piece of that and put it aside for alternative technologies,” Hart said.

Carbon emissions in the United States have been on a downward trajectory for more than a decade, said Profeta. However, nearly all of U.S. nuclear plants – which are carbon-free and generate about 20% of the country’s electricity – are due to retire in the 2030s, he said. If we are not prepared with new technologies, these emissions reductions will be lost.

“We need to find a way to make sure that that pipeline is full, that the technologies that we will need in 2030 and 2040 are available to us,” Profeta said.

Said Sivaram, “We will be ruing the day that we didn’t proactively invest in innovation.”

[Associated image: Brookhaven National Laboratory]


Andrea Korte