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The U.S. Energy Department announced today that it will provide $100 million more in stimulus funds to projects pursuing potentially disruptive clean energy technologies — and employing thousands of Americans in the process. It’s doing so under the banner of ARPA-E, which stands for Advanced Research Projects Agency – Energy.
The new funding is targeted at three specific areas of innovation: grid-scale storage solutions, experimental electricity transmission projects, and energy efficient air conditioners for green buildings. These first two categories are pretty intuitive, but the third hasn’t been a major priority until now.
Grid-scale storage is a huge concern for several reasons. First of all, Americans are using more energy now than ever before. This trend is stretching grids and utilities to capacity, threatening to cause far more blackouts and other service disruptions. The problem will only get worse (and way worse at that) when consumers start plugging in electric vehicles, starting this year. If more energy can be stored during off-peak or low-demand times, then utilities will be able to take the edge off on-peak demand, preventing outages and saving millions on maintenance.
On top of that, the only way wind and solar power will become mainstream energy solutions, is if the electricity they generate can be stored in massive quantities. Right now, both renewable sources are too intermittent and unreliable to be the sole providers of electricity to households and businesses. If grid-level storage became available, unneeded solar and wind could be reserved for times when the sun isn’t shining or the wind isn’t blowing, making them consistent enough to go it alone without a fossil fuel backup.
ARPA-E says it is looking to fund prototypes and projects in this area that can eventually be scaled to the megawatt and megawatt-hour level. Applicants for this money can be at the proof-of-concept stage; they don’t need to have demonstrable technology yet.
Transmission is also one of the hurdles standing between the grid now and what it needs to be to handle new demand and distributed sources of energy (like wind and solar). In particular, ARPA-E wants to see more projects working on high-density charge storage — transmission solutions that are both cheaper and capable of delivering more energy at a time.
Special attention is being paid to more efficient power converters, which would allow electricity to be scaled up for intensive applications, like data centers, and scaled down for smaller applications, like household lighting. Making power converters more efficient could reduce electricity consumption in the U.S. by as much as 12 percent, the Department of Energy says, not to mention save American businesses thousands off their energy bills.
The third category of focus for this new ARPA-E round, thermodevices (i.e. air conditioners), is somewhat surprising, but it makes sense. In addition to lighting and major appliances, HVAC systems eat up a shocking amount of energy every year. Just imagine how much Texans’ electricity bills go up during the summer. Now the government is investing in making these systems more efficient.
The program will be looking for projects working on new AC designs that save energy while simultaneously cutting down on hazardous GHG emissions (vapor produced by typical refrigerants). Systems that recirculate air in hot climates are of particular interest. With many developing nations in warm climates seeing a spike in economic growth, there will be more and more demand for AC systems. Making sure they get the greenest models possible when the market explodes is imperative.
ARPA-E’s first, $151 million round of funding targeted a broad array of technologies: biofuels, carbon sequestration equipment, renewable power sources, building efficiency designs, electric vehicles, energy storage solutions and more — although only 37 recipients were selected out of a pool of 3,700, as Earth2Tech points out. Its second round, also $100 million, narrowed this field, funding biofuel development, carbon capture and battery innovations. Now this third round seems to be even more focused on energy delivery and efficiency. In the past, projects have received about $4 million each.
There is an open call for applications for this third round right now. It will be interesting to see how many are chosen to get the money — and whether or not they will come up with anything truly useful.
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