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How the Department of Energy & National Labs Spark Energy Storage Innovation

The past five years have been very interesting for the US Department of Energy (DOE). During this period, the tidal wave of technology and business development around energy storage and other energy initiatives has gained steam like a runaway freight train — and for good reason. Aside from the extreme weather patterns we have been experiencing over the globe, energy cost, source, supply and stability are regular topics on the front page of nearly any periodical.

The US government, via the DOE, stepped forward in a big way over the past few years, establishing technology hubs and pouring money into advanced energy storage technology companies of all sorts, including startups. Predictably, and uncomfortably, some of those investments did not turn out well and the media had a field day. Nonetheless, the network of DOE National Laboratories is one of the best technology support organizations in the world, including as compared to those of other nations' governments.

The capability, expertise, depth, and breadth of their repertoire of core competencies are unrivaled anywhere. Failures of some investments have to be viewed as the cost of doing business, not as poor execution or wasted money. Can the processes for support be improved? Absolutely. But does that mean that risky investments should be discontinued? Absolutely not.

The United States Advanced Battery Consortium (USABC), made up of representatives from US automotive original equipment manufacturers (OEMs), the DOE, and the National Lab system, is a shining example of how to do it right. The USABC obtains funds from the DOE to initiate technical programs and then works hard to distribute those funds to practical, capable, and progressive companies through a competitive proposal bidding process.

The working groups of the USABC participate directly and indirectly with those companies throughout the program, advising on how to use funds, offering strong technical support, providing program guidance, and, when necessary, even giving moral support. The USABC demands performance from the companies they choose and when the contracted companies give their all, those same companies are rewarded with the best of what the USABC and the DOE has to offer.

Maxwell has had only positive interactions with the DOE, National Labs, and the USABC. It is never easy, always demanding, and takes energy and effort from all to achieve good results. But despite these conditions, the model works. Maxwell and other companies involved in the programs have been able to realize great benefits in technology development and business growth, enabling new opportunities for others who purchase the resulting products to build their own businesses. These benefits then extend all the way to the end consumers who use those products to their best advantage.

It is easy to be critical from the outside looking in, but I thank the US government for its support, and others in the industry should, too. Without the DOE's support, the energy storage industry would not be as far along or as strong as we are, and wouldn't have learned as much as we have through the collaborative interactions with these organizations.

24 comments on “How the Department of Energy & National Labs Spark Energy Storage Innovation

  1. eafpres
    May 14, 2014

    Hi Mike–thanks for your post.  The subject of direct government intervention in funding innovation is always controversial.  I was in NBS/NIST in the 80s and 90s, and during that time many programs were created with the express intent to “help US Industry”.  The challenge was that small in-house programs had little leverage, and generally were conceived based on the biases of the lead investigator.

    The approach you discuss of forming a partnership group from Industry and Government to administrate grants is not a bad model.  Still, there are so many possible technologies.  Batteries are a good example.  It would seem to me that the DoE would have to fund hundreds of battery projects from basic research to application development, to have a good chance of accelerating the right technologies.

  2. MAEverett
    May 14, 2014

    Thanks for the reply eafpres1. I would suggest to the fed govt that they turn the process upside down to vet new technologies. You are correct, 100's to choose from. Why not turn the tables and involve industry in the SELECTION of where the money goes all around like what the USABC does. Give companies who are out there producing a 20% influence in the scoring or something like that. In this way, they government gets the benefit of industry input at no cost to them. Assuming an unbiased process, the 100's of choices could be culled to a precious few with real potential if the guys that are in the business are allowed to influence how the dollars are allocated. Just a thought……

  3. Davidled
    May 14, 2014

    National Science Foundation (NSF) is supporting for all innovation technology so that intellectual Properties is developed, protect country technology and increase economy profit.  I think that some company would be supported by NSF.

  4. eafpres
    May 15, 2014

    @Mike–I completely agree with what you propose.  There should be more cooperation and involvement of stakeholders in any process like this, vs. a top down “picking winners” scenario.  DoE unfortunately has a bad reputation in some areas, being one of the more politicized cabinet departments.

    A related thought–essentially US Energy policy has led to exclusion of some forms of energy development in the private industry, such as any realistic plan to deploy nuclear power in some form that would be widely agreed to be safe and reliable.  This has led to US companies involved in such technology to be doing their best work for other countries.  I suggest that policy and technology, while not fully separable, should be managed separately.

  5. samicksha
    May 15, 2014

    I remember DoE funded some Lab to focus on improving the supply of rare earth elements, which is controlled by China, not sure if it yielded any support or information.

  6. D Feucht
    May 16, 2014

    The basic problem in having government involved in scientific or engineering research is that these are roles for which government is not instituted, and it does badly at both despite a few success stories.

    This issue has been studied at length and reported in a book by Terrence Kealey, Provost of Buckingham U. in Britain, titled The Economic Laws of Scientific Research. In it he shows historically from the 19th and early 20th century that while the British govt did not fund science (which was largely amateur science), France funded dirigisme (organized) science extensively. Despite this, Britain was more scientifically productive. Later, the Soviet Union poured vast amounts of resources into science, yet did not produce in proportion to what was expended.

    Why is this? The free researcher can follow the odd idea, the will-of-the-wisp, while govt science projects are decided by committees, thereby producing predictable and “safe” projects that do not generally result in the kind of breakthroughs found among those engaged in free scientific or technical exploration.

    The moral problem is that govt expenditures on technical research result from a forcible redistribution of wealth from productive people to nonproductive, redistributive govt. Such research proceeds on the basis of money stolen (to avoid euphemisms) from the people that might have been used more effectively by them in choosing (freely) in what (research risks) to invest their resources.

  7. Netcrawl
    May 16, 2014

    @Daej you're right about NSF but its a tough game now because of lack of funding and resources, modernizing electricity system will help the nation's meet future needs and also address climate change by integrating more energy from renewable sources. 

     

  8. Netcrawl
    May 16, 2014

    @samicksha, Not just earth elements but also electrochemical energy development, DOE has a mission to advance the energy secuirty of the nation, reduce the use of imported oil and increase energy security. DOE has a cooperative aggrement with USABC to develop electrochemical energy storage technologies that could support commercialization of hybrid and fuel cell vehicles, electrochemical energy storage has been identified as a critical enabling technology for advanced fule-efficient vehicles.   

  9. samicksha
    May 16, 2014

    Thank You @ Netcrwal, energy conservation and security is now one of the top concern for most of the countries. Yes using fuel cell vehicles sounds good step towards energy conservation curious to see if we can impant enough charging stations for them.

  10. samicksha
    May 16, 2014

    @D Feucht: Sounds like common story now. Its not only reserach which works here i guess more important is to relate them with practical usage/ impacts. Which still seems to be worked on.

  11. RedDerek
    May 16, 2014

    @samicksha – Rare earth elements once were sourced from all parts of the world. It is when China made them available cheaper that the other world-wide sources started to shut down due to the cost. It is only now that China has announced that it will now start limiting the supply that the rest of the world is taking notice. Now to get those earlier sources back up and running,especially with new, more stringent, regulations, cost is not there yet to compete with China increasing prices. It becomes more political and economical to determine when to start producting rare earth elements outside of China. Not sure if DOE is really going to help here.

  12. Davidled
    May 16, 2014

    Most comments are based on US policy and regulation for technology innovation. I am curious for other country's Energy and Technology policy that would support the research institute and start-up company. It could be a different in terms of culture and government politician.

  13. eafpres
    May 17, 2014

    @Dennis–you are correct in your summarizing comments. 

    However, the question is where do the funds come from and who does the R&D?

    In the US, you can have government R&D, which starts out as Congress approving budgets, in which are hidden vast sums for pet projects, then the agencies control what work is actually done or not.  Politics abound.

    Alternatively you can have government funded R&D in the academic sector, which is consumed by tenure and publish or perish imperatives.

    Then there is government funded R&D in the private sector.  This can be subdivided into work done in for-profit companies, work done solely for the acquisition of funding, and certain non-profit R&D concerns.  Note that the 2nd category is populated by firms existing from SBIR grant to SBIR grant in many cases.

    One would think that funding work in profit-seeking firms would be the least biased, but that is hard to say in practice.  Knowing the money doesn't affect their bottom line, changes the perspective.

    To me the only resolution of this is that government regulates in the best public interest.  Of course, this practice has a mixed track record, at best.

  14. eafpres
    May 17, 2014

    @RedDerek–the case of “rare earths” is a great object lesson.  I will claim credit to having started to watch this years ago.  The problem of allowing only the free market to determine choices is that the market is not free.  The US government should have been able to see a risk of allowing the source of strategic materials migrate to producers in a state-controlled industry (e.g. China).  The big issue now is that the time constant of resurrecting an industry like rare earth mining in the US is quite long.

    Contrast this to the government's interest in, say, nuclear power.  While the lack of a plan to develop this as a strategic energy source for the US is deplorable, the government has a high-profile interest in controlling the material supply and design resoruces for nuclear power.

  15. D Feucht
    May 18, 2014

    @eafpres1

    Your question is well-put. The answer historically is, I think, the correct one, though it will require a new civilization to achieve it. Britain set the example a century ago. The British govt did not fund science, and in not funding it and a myriad other non-governmental functions, the British were not taxed much and had more disposable income to apply to scientific experimentation. (So did Americans.) Additionally, the social or spiritual milieu (in both places) was one that encouraged science among the populace; it was a fashionable hobby. Some hobby scientists became prominent; Einstein (though not British) was one of them.

    Today, neither of these conditions exists anywhere in the developed world to any great extent. If anywhere, China (including Taiwan) and India have some of these characteristics. Half the science PhDs on the planet (as I recall) are in India. Chinese build electronic test equipment that is comparable in quality to US equipment but at less than half the price. (That will change as the dollar collapses.)
    And the Chinese and Baratis (Indians) have social and educational environments that encourage an interest in sci-tech. So do the Russians and Germans.

    Govt involvement in sci-tech is a good idea to those who too often see it as good that govt be involved in everything. That wish seems to be rapidly coming true in America.

    I can envision a situation where noodle shop owners are millionaires (like in Hong Kong) and their children are encouraged to experiment, build laboratories in a corner of the bedrooms, and excel. That is what Americans were doing (in their garages) during the Gilded Age; there wasn't even an EE degree back then (until later). Sometimes more can be done with less – if the right kind of minds are prepared for it. Russian medicine is an example.

  16. samicksha
    May 19, 2014

    Yes you are right, i read about number of ongoing projects in Australia and Canada but yet to see if production starts or may be restrictions had environmental protection in mind.

  17. chirshadblog
    May 19, 2014

    @samicksha: Yes indeed and that is why those countries do well. If you do very less harm towards the nature in return you will benefit out of it. It's a very hard logic to explain but there is an impact in it for sure. That is why CSR activities are very important these days. Those are direct marketing tools used by companies.  

  18. samicksha
    May 21, 2014

    I just came across new standard that will save commercial buildings and industry up to nearly $16 billion and prevent 96 million metric tons of CO2 through 2030, one of the largest energy saving regulations ever passed in the US. Sounds impressive..

  19. geek
    May 31, 2014

    “I just came across new standard that will save commercial buildings and industry up to nearly $16 billion and prevent 96 million metric tons of CO2 through 2030”

    @Samicksha: Any idea if this standard has been commercially deployed somewhere or if it's at least being considered for practical uses? It does seem like a very attractive and viable option to me.

  20. geek
    May 31, 2014

     

    “Contrast this to the government's interest in, say, nuclear power.  While the lack of a plan to develop this as a strategic energy source for the US is deplorable, the government has a high-profile interest in controlling the material supply and design resoruces for nuclear power.”

    @eafpres1: It is interesting to see that level of interest in the nuclear power by the government even when its known that it carries a very high amount of risk. A disaster to a nuclear plant can create a huge amount of damage which may not even be repairable. Other methods for power generation are safer in this regard.

     

  21. eafpres
    May 31, 2014

    Yes, but as yet nothing is as effective as nuclear regarding carbon footprint. I feel it is unfortunate that outside the US many will benefit from advanced reactor designs while we pat ourselves on the back for “energy independence” based on carbon fuess

  22. samicksha
    June 4, 2014

    I am not sure about deployment, but yes the rule will now include partial motors as used in gear motors and customized electrical and mechanical designs. Also you can find more on http://cleantechnica.com/2014/05/21/us-doe-issues-final-rule-energy-conservation-standards-electric-motors/

  23. geek
    June 9, 2014

    “I feel it is unfortunate that outside the US many will benefit from advanced reactor designs while we pat ourselves on the back for “energy independence” based on carbon fuess”

    @eafpres1: Again, I'd say it's a trade-off. Nuclear energy is one of the most cleanest forms of energy and a lot of countries are using it. But it doesn't come without a cost. Given the disasters at Chyrnobel and other places, the impacts of even a small incident can be huge.

  24. eafpres
    June 9, 2014

    @tzubair:  It is a challenge to get accurate or even consistent figures on the deaths and/or diseases caused by man-made radiation exposure.  Likewise, there are many figures out there for deaths from fossil-fuel generated power.  The direct deaths from radiation accidents have been very low.  It is interesting that there have been a number of accidents in the medical industry that have exposed people to unwanted radiation.  On the other hand pollution from using fossil fuel, especially coal, is estimated to cause 10s of thousands of deaths every year.

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