4 solar fights roiling Capitol Hill

Source: Christa Marshall, E&E News reporter • Posted: Thursday, December 14, 2017

The Department of Energy’s solar office is a waste of money. The Trump administration acted improperly in putting together its budget. The Obama administration screwed up solar loans.

Those were some of the arguments made at a House Science, Space and Technology Committee hearing yesterday on solar technology.

The arguments spotlighted long-standing divisions between Republicans and Democrats on how the federal government should support renewable energy and fund research.

Disagreements generally break down as follows:

Focus on ‘reliability’

Dan Simmons, principal deputy assistant secretary in the Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy, said the dramatic cost reductions in solar technology in recent years provide an opportunity for the administration to “refocus” DOE’s solar energy technologies office.

“In the long term, the primary challenge facing solar is not cost, but reliability,” Simmons said. “Solar has dramatically grown over the past decade, but adding large amounts of solar to the grid presents grid reliability challenges.”

The remarks are in line with Energy Secretary Rick Perry, who has spoken about the importance of “reliability” and reliable power sources.

They also expand on Simmons’ comments in September, when DOE’s SunShot Initiative announced it had achieved a cost goal for utility-scale solar three years early.

At the time, Simmons announced DOE’s solar program would shift to early-stage research, with announced grants on concentrating solar power and power electronics (Greenwire, Sept. 12).

However, Simmons said yesterday that early-stage research is “not the end of the story.” He said, “We do not want these technologies just to be developed in the labs and stay in the labs.”

DOE would like to bring more industry dollars to the labs, and the Office of Technology Transitions can bridge the gap between lab and market, Simmons said.

While DOE is focused on reliability with solar, it will continue to work to cut costs, too, he said.

The budget

Democrats yesterday once again vociferously attacked the Trump administration’s budget plan, which called for slashing DOE’s renewable and efficiency spending by more than half. That would allow the rest of the world, and China in particular, to move ahead of the U.S. in solar power, they said.

In opening remarks, ranking member Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-Texas) said it was simply “unacceptable” that the administration did not fully consult with industry before releasing “draconian cuts.”

“In fact, administration officials confirmed after they released the budget that there was no engagement with the private sector to determine what industry would be able or willing to fund in the advance of federal investment,” Johnson said.

Other Democrats sometimes spent almost as much time attacking Trump’s policies as questioning witnesses. Even though appropriators are ignoring many of the requested cuts, they are an attractive target.

Rep. Paul Tonko (D-N.Y.) noted China is spending much more than the U.S. on renewable research and development. Trump’s proposed budget cuts “defy common sense and will cost us dearly in the future,” he said.

SunShot should die. Or not

Kenneth Stein, policy director at the Institute for Energy Research, said the SunShot Initiative, started during the Obama administration, was a “failure of mission.” The institute, where Simmons used to work, supports free-market principles.

SunShot “sought to reduce the cost of solar energy systems so that they could become cost-competitive with other forms of energy. Simply put, that it is a political goal, not a research goal,” Stein said.

It put the federal government in the position of picking winners and losers and pushed industry to chase benchmarks, Stein said. He questioned whether solar costs came down for other reasons, like manufacturing innovation in China or tax credits.

Launched in 2011, SunShot aimed to reduce the total costs of solar energy by 75 percent. Many hailed the program as a great success.

“We’ve heard that SunShot is a political goal, not a research goal. However, it seems to me that the purpose of investments in energy technology are to advance technology so it functions more efficiently,” Tonko said.

Similarly, Steve Eglash, executive director of strategic research initiatives in computer science at Stanford University, said SunShot “created an inspiring goal of cost and performance” that mobilized researchers and industry.

National Renewable Energy Laboratory Director Martin Keller said it’s not the case that China was the source of lower costs, pointing out that a U.S. manufacturer also benefited from SunShot.

What the heck is basic research anyway?

The Trump administration and conservatives on the committee have been pushing for DOE to focus on “basic” and “early-stage” research.

The Obama administration focused too much on big projects that failed or supported endeavors that might have been picked up by private industry anyway, they say.

“The previous administration often played favorites and invested heavily in the deployment of photovoltaic technology into electricity markets,” Chairman Lamar Smith (R-Texas) said in opening remarks.

“While this approach may have sped the deployment of today’s solar energy, it did not lead to the kind of breakthrough technology in solar energy, manufacturing and energy storage that is needed to help solar energy compete without tax credits, mandates or subsidies,” he said.

But Johnson said the committee was quibbling about “late-stage research” or just “early-stage activities, whatever that means,” instead of supporting robust R&D.

Basic research generally refers to investigation of big scientific questions without any obvious commercial application. Critics say the definition is not easily applied to energy, where projects may have a decadelong path to get out of a lab.

Keller said he supported the administration’s focus but said there also needs to be a “balanced portfolio” that helps transition technology to industry.

At one point, Rep. Jacky Rosen (D-Nev.) asked witnesses about the “false dichotomy” of basic versus applied research.

The distinction is “frequently misleading and not helpful,” said Eglash. “What’s needed in most cases is understanding fundamentally what’s going on in areas that can be inspired by and informed by real-world problems,” he said.