House passes bills to create two DOE solar and storage research programs

Source: Christa Marshall, E&E reporter • Posted: Tuesday, July 12, 2016

The House passed legislation last night that would create new basic research programs at the Department of Energy for electricity storage and solar fuels.

Both bills prohibit funds from being used for commercial application of energy technology, spurring disagreement on the House floor about their focus on “basic” research. They passed by voice vote under suspension of the rules of the House, which dictate that no amendments can be made to the legislation and two-thirds of voting members are required for passage.

The “Solar Fuels Innovation Act” from Rep. Steve Knight (R-Calif.), H.R. 5638, would authorize $150 million for a new basic research initiative at DOE to advance solar fuels. The majority of the money is slated for basic research at DOE’s Office of Science. Some funds also are authorized for early stage research at the Office of Renewable Energy & Energy Efficiency.

“This legislation ensures the responsible use of limited tax dollars,” Knight said, as it requires the use of existing funds.

Solar fuel technology aims to transform sunlight into fuels by combining sunlight, water, air and materials. Because the process mimics how plants make fuel from sunlight, it is often called artificial photosynthesis. In theory, the technology could eliminate the need for using vast amounts of farmland for biofuel production by instead generating fuels in a lab.

The measure, which is supported by multiple universities, calls for researchers to investigate generating a range of fuel products from sunlight, including alcohols, carbon monoxide and natural gas.

Lawmakers said during the committee markup last week that the focus in both bills on basic research should be changed, as there is often a blurry line between basic and applied research (E&ENews PM, July 7). An amendment from Rep. Mark Takano (D-Calif.) that would have removed the word “basic” failed in committee.

On the floor last night, Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-Texas) raised those concerns again, noting that the Department of Energy criticized the bills’ focus on basic research.

“There’s no clear boundary that divides basic and applied research,” said Johnson, adding she would not oppose passage. The distinction between applied and basic depends on what “researchers had in mind when making discoveries,” she said. Some research directed by the bills could be considered applied research under White House Office of Management and Budget guidelines, she said.

The “Electricity Storage Innovation Act” from Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas) also would authorize $150 million for a new basic research initiative focused on various types of energy storage technologies. Like the solar fuels bill, the legislation calls for new research teams to tap expertise from the national labs, industry and universities to “pursue aggressive, milestone-driven basic research goals” for the technology.

At a recent congressional hearing, witnesses told lawmakers that more investment is needed to improve battery chemistry and storage efficiency (E&E Daily, June 16). There currently are not Senate companion bills, according to an aide in the House Science, Space and Technology Committee.