Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Research Funding for Solar in North America

It is hard to say whether the next great leap forward in solar energy efficiency or economics will come from the basic science research performed largely at universities and national labs, from incremental engineering improvement, or from investing in start-up companies to get their products from the laboratory to store shelves.

The US Department of Energy (DOE) requested a total of $29.5 billion dollar for 2012, an 11% increase from 2010 (including a significant endowment that year from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, better known as the Stimulus). This includes research, development, loan guarantee programs, grants for efficient buildings, smart-grid upgrades, and many other programs all the way to reducing the risk of nuclear proliferation. The DOE’s Office of Science, which is responsible for much of the basic research on energy problems, is requesting $5 billion (compared to $11.7 for National Nuclear Security Administration).

The DOE has focused much of its available solar funding on the SunShot Initiative, which has a goal of reducing installed solar electricity costs by 75%, to $1/Watt approximately the level of grid parity, by 2020. Despite the economic downturn, funding of solar energy research and the development of a clean energy technology is still considered a priority by many policy makers as well as the public.

Moving to commercialisation

While the basic science needed to drive the next great breakthrough in solar energy is largely taking place in universities and national labs, the US government still provides funding for research in private industry. Much of the available capital is focused on helping small- and medium-sized businesses participate in advanced research. Unfortunately, there remains little support toward spanning the so called “valley of death” which is the stage between R & D and bringing a technology to commercial market.
Small business research

Through the Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) and Small Business Technology Transfer (SBTT) Programs, federal agencies allocate 2.5% and 0.3%, respectively, of their federal funding toward supporting small businesses. Since 1990, the Department of Energy/SBIR and SBTT programs have supported 600 small businesses and are offering up to $9 million this year .

In the SBIR program, the DOE determines its research priorities and uses private industry to reach their goals. The current solar goals follow those of the SunShot Initiative.

The awards available are broken down into two phases. In phase I, companies are offered up to $100,000 for six months to determine the merit and feasibility of a new technology and determine the best plan towards commercialization. In phase two, those technologies which have proven their technological merit in phase I expand their research to determine the commercialization potential of the technology. Once the commercialization potential has been established, the companies must find capital outside of the SBIR program to finally bring their product to the marketplace.

The SBTT program offers research opportunities and funding for small businesses interested in collaborating with non-profit research institutions like universities and national labs.

Funding early-stage projects

The Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA-E) was created in 2007 and funded in 2009 to promote research into revolutionary and cutting-edge technologies that might not be otherwise fundable or pursued by private industry because they are too radical or uncertain. While the DOE’s Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy (EERE) program focuses on incremental steps and improvement to existing technologies likely to lower costs, ARPA-E looks for early stage projects that might fundamentally change the template by which we generate, store, transport and use energy. This year, APRA-E will offer $150 million to universities, labs, and private industry in the hopes of sparking such chance.

Funding power electronics

The Solar Agile Delivery of Electrical Power Technology (SolarADEPT) Program through APRA-E specifically focuses on achieving the goals of the SunShot Initiative by improving the electrical components that help convert the sun’s rays into electricity.

States funding solar

Though the US federal government is by far the largest provider of funding for solar energy research, some progressive states like New York, Colorado, and California are also funding their own research in the hopes of nurturing burgeoning clean energy economies. California, for example, since 1996 has set aside a portion of utility taxes collected to fund a number of energy-related programs through their Public Interest Energy Research (PIER) program. This current renewable energy solicitation has $4.5 million available for California-based businesses, to support, “developing renewable energy technologies” and, “conducting longer term research on advanced renewable technologies that will help meet tomorrow's electricity needs”.

Canadian funding difficulties

In Canada, solar energy research funding has become harder to find in recent years. At present, many of the programs that have previously supported renewable energy research and development for Canadian businesses, like the ecoEnergy Innovation Initiative , which received almost $100 million through the Canada’s Economic Action Plan, and the Clean Energy Fund, which has provided $795 million for demonstration projects, are no longer accepting proposals and don’t expect to in the future.


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