Even in Trump era, green energy innovation is sparking, not sputtering

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Congress has kept in place federal funds that support the key period when inventors have to build prototypes to show potential investors. Some corporations and states also help maintain momentum on clean energy.

Mark Trumbull

Staff writer

APRIL 27, 2018 

 WASHINGTON—Eric Wachsman thinks he might have an answer to one of the great challenges that’s hindering the rise of electric vehicles: building better batteries.

The need is clear enough. The University of Maryland scientist knows that “range anxiety” has been one of the sticking points for consumers. “We want more and more energy out of every battery” he says.

But Professor Wachsman’s big idea – using a solid ceramic rather than flammable liquids inside the battery – won’t show up in electric vehicles anytime soon. Even when a technology works, proving its commercial viability, refining it, and attracting private investment to scale up production takes time and effort.

Wachsman’s project, part of a federal program to stimulate energy research, symbolizes some of the difficult realities as nations seek to address climate change by moving rapidly toward a clean-energy economy. Breakthroughs in technology are both vital and possible, but they require upfront patience before any big payoff ​​– a patience that private-sector investors typically don’t have.

Experts say the good news is that clean-energy research in the US is continuing, and often with federal funding, despite President Trump’s avowed preference for coal over renewables. But some also say the current level of energy research remains small relative to the need.

“Clearly, we need to deploy lots of [technologies] that are already commercialized in greater and greater numbers…. We also need innovation, across the whole spectrum of low-carbon and zero-carbon technologies,” says Karl Hausker, an energy expert at the World Resources Institute in Washington. “We’re making some good progress. But we need to step it up.”

When the Republican-led Congress passed its omnibus spending bill in March, it ignored Mr. Trump’s call to end some energy programs, notably the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy, known as ARPA-E. The agency is a kind of skunk works for energy innovation, embedded into the massive Department of Energy based on legislation passed in 2007.

The Trump administration has also been busy scaling back Obama-era plans to reduce auto and utility emissions of greenhouse gases that scientists say are warming Earth’s climate.

But Dr. Hausker says that on various fronts, from Congress to corporate and state- or local-government actions, the push toward a cleaner economy is continuing.

“The outpouring of commitments … is really remarkable,” he says. These entities “are going to maintain a lot of the momentum.”

Meeting the goal

Climate scientists have widely agreed on the urgency of a daunting objective, to hold human-caused warming of Earth’s climate to no more than 2 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels. That in turn, points Hausker and other energy experts toward the goal of eliminating 80 percent of US carbon dioxide emissions by 2050.

That means a lot of innovation would be welcome. Achieving climate-action targets by mid-century will hinge on improved energy efficiency, not just on the increasing the replacement of fossil fuels with cleaner sources of electricity, heat, and power.

At ARPA-E’s annual summit in March, the atmosphere was one of persistence. Doubts may still hang over the agency’s future, but Congress actually increased its funding for 2018, and projects are continuing. And new ideas are being pitched to potential innovators, such as whether outworn oil wells can be converted to generate steam-based geothermal energy deep underground.

“Henry Ford once said about the automobile that if you’d asked people at the time what they wanted, most of them would have said they wanted a faster horse. That’s exactly why ARPA-E is so very important today,” Norm Augustine, a former aerospace CEO who helped inspire the agency’s launch, told a crowd at the event. “What’s needed are fresh approaches to the challenges we face.”

Mr. Augustine said it looks like advances in an array of energy fields, not just wind and solar, will be needed to meet future energy and environmental needs.

From wave-power to better solar

The dozens of exhibitors in the summit’s showroom, at a Washington convention center overlooking the Potomac River, ranged from nuclear and ocean-wave power to improved gasoline engines for cars. But they all have something in common: As ARPA-E award recipients, they’re expected to be laser-focused on using their grants to move a potentially viable product toward the marketplace.

Some of the projects push technological frontiers.

The Palo Alto Research Center, a Xerox company, is working with Sandia National Laboratories to develop a “micro chiplet printer” that could dramatically improve solar panels.

Other projects are more mundane, but if successful they could be equally far-reaching. Researchers from Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland are working on data-gathering software that would make it much simpler to provide accurate advice to businesses on improving the energy efficiency of their buildings.

The federal seed money is aimed at filling a gap that the private sector generally doesn’t: the difficult period of applied research, when the science is proven but the prototype is not yet built. Energy expert Varun Sivaram puts it this way in “Taming the Sun,” his new book on solar power: “Achieving successful demonstrations is absolutely crucial to bring down the risks perceived by private investors and firms.”

That’s why Dr. Sivaram differs with the view that government-funded research can be limited to basic science.

Can US stay ahead?

Other nations are also investing in energy research, which raises the prospect that US leadership in this area – and the jobs that can go with it – is far from guaranteed.

Wachsman, who heads the University of Maryland Energy Research Center, says he’s hopeful that he and his colleagues will play a role in tackling the threat of climate change.

“Even back in high school I was involved with and interested in energy,” he says. Partly that grew out of concern for the environment, but also “I was in high school during the first oil crisis, when people actually had to [wait] in line for gasoline.”

As a self-professed car nut, he felt America shouldn’t be dependent on other countries for its energy.

Now he and his colleagues – other professors, some of his students, the first employee at a start-up company – are on the hunt for funds to launch their first product: a solid ceramic-based battery for aerospace or defense applications. That’s a first step toward bringing safer, lighter, and cheaper batteries to the automotive sector.

“We are on a path to do that,” he says, adding that it shows how programs such as ARPA-E are “a critical aspect of what we need to do to be competitive as an energy industry.

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