U.S. Energy Innovation Week in Review: July 14-20

The past week includes introduction of a National Labs technology transfer and reform bill, proposed legislation to promote alternative vehicle technologies, new advanced geothermal energy R&D investments, new funding for biofuel feedstock research, a newly announced coal plant CCS retrofit project, fuel cell vehicle market entry, and the first all-solar yieldco:

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  • Last week, the House joined the Senate in supporting bipartisan legislation that will ease the process of sharing technologies between the market, laboratories, and universities. The bill aims to vertically integrate DOE energy and science research programs, or expedite technology transfers and generally reform DOE lab management. The House bill differs from the Senate bill in its authorization of DOE funding to the National Science Foundation’s “Innovation Corps.” Statements from both sides of the aisle suggest that there is broad support for the bills, as they would encourage innovation and public-private partnerships that are more sustainable in the long-run.
  • In addition to the broader legislation to improve technology transfers, legislation was introduced in the House that would incent the production of alternative fuels vehicles. The bill, sponsored by Representative Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.), would lower fuel economy requirements for automakers that develop alternative fuel vehicles or technologies. The bill would reduce incentives to make conventional fuel vehicles more fuel-efficient, but would incentivize the research and development of alternative fuel technologies. Supporters of the bill make a distinction between direct government support for innovations and claim that the bill is an indirect way to incentivize free market competition in the auto industry.
  • DOE announced $31 million in funding to establish the Frontier Observatory for Research in Geothermal Energy (FORGE), a “field laboratory dedicated to cutting-edge research on enhanced geothermal systems” (EGS). This is direct support for research and development efforts that aims to create new image and monitoring technology and encourage an open data policy to expand the knowledge base for EGS. The funding is divided into three phases; phases 1 and 2 would allow for more flexibility, as it allows teams to perform analysis and find various sites at which to test. Phase 3 will be the full implementation of FORGE, which his expected to create a more comprehensive R&D strategy for EGS.
  • DOE and USDA have planned to partner to oversee 10 projects that will receive funding for accelerating the production of biofuels, biopower, and bio-based products. The joint program, the DOE-USDA Plant Feedstocks Genomics for Bioenergy research program, will provide $12.6 million in research grants to projects located in California, Colorado, Illinois, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, New York, Texas, and Virginia. The time period for support from DOE and USDA will initially be 3 years. The purpose of such funding is to “accelerate the breeding of optimized dedicated bioenergy feedstocks” in order to allow development of “regionally-adapted bioenergy feedstock.”
  • DOE partnered with NRG Energy Inc. and JX Nippon to begin construction on the “first commercial-scale post-combustion carbon capture retrofit project in the U.S.,” which is planned to be able to capture around 1.4 million metric tons of carbon dioxide annually. Secretary Ernest Moniz spoke to the partnership’s importance as the United States continues to rely on coal resources. The Petra Nova Project will build on a previously-discovered process for capturing carbon dioxide, one that was previously sponsored by DOE. This displays the importance of viewing innovation as a pathway to a goal and not as an end result.
  • Toyota reaffirmed plans to sell fuel cell vehicles (FCVs) before April of 2015. As of now, not many opportunities exist for the rapid expansion of FCVs due to a lack of hydrogen infrastructure and refueling stations. But, Toyota’s announcement to sell these vehicles could expand industry interest in speeding up development of infrastructure.
  • The first all-solar yieldco, Terraform Power, debuted its initial public offering. Operated by SunEdison, the business owns over 500 MW of solar power plants in the U.S., U.K., Canada, and Chile. The so-called yieldco model is an increasingly common way for renewable-energy developers to raise capital at lower costs. Developers sell new projects to their yieldco, using the proceeds to fund additional plants. Revenue from selling power provides funds for the yieldco to buy more plants as they are built and also pay dividends to investors.