Coal-killing energy storage challenge (also dings natural gas)

  • Published on January 14th, 2020

It’s no secret that the Trump Administration has presided over the collapse of the US coal industry, but do they have to rub it in? The answer appears to be yes. On Wednesday, newly minted Energy Secretary Dan Brouillette announced an all-hands-on-deck initiative to push the energy storage envelope farther into coal-killing territory. For good measure, the new $153 million “Energy Storage Grand Challenge” will probably bump off natural gas, too. And all this under a President* who pledged to save coal jobs!

energy storage challenge - bye bye coal and natural gas


The Jig Is Up: Trump Hates Coal, Loves Energy Storage

Considering all the promises Trump made to coal miners, their families, and their communities, one would think that a major coal-killing announcement would get buried in a Friday evening news dump. After all, energy storage is the key that accelerates the renewable energy revolution.

Nope. Secretary Brouillette made the announcement in the brilliant light of day exactly in the middle of the week, on Wednesday afternoon at CES 2020 in Las Vegas. The annual event, which is owned and produced by the US Consumer Technology Association, bills itself as “the world’s gathering place for all those who thrive on the business of consumer technologies.”

“It has served as the proving ground for innovators and breakthrough technologies for 50 years — the global stage where next-generation innovations are introduced to the marketplace,” CES continues.

You couldn’t ask for a more high profile venue than that — oh wait, you can.

CES has been especially like honey to media flies this year, because a very high profile White House official — Trump advisor Ivanka Trump — was scheduled to deliver a rare main stage keynote address at the event. That’s rare as in, female main stage keynoters are like unicorns at CES, so between the Trump name and the female angle, all eyes have been on CES for weeks leading up to the event.

A Moonshot For Next Generation Energy Storage

Where were we? Oh right, the new energy storage announcement. Here it is:

“Today, U.S. Energy Secretary Dan Brouillette announced the launch of the Energy Storage Grand Challenge, a comprehensive program to accelerate the development, commercialization, and utilization of next-generation energy storage technologies and sustain American global leadership in energy storage.”

At $153 million, funding for the new energy storage program is relatively small. However, it adds to a $158 million pot that was carved into the fiscal year 2020 federal budget.

That’s still peanuts compared to other Energy Department efforts (FutureGen, anyone?), but there’s an interesting twist to this one.

The effort will come under the new Research and Technology Investment Committee in the Energy Department. RTIC was established by a 2018 Act of Congress —  the Department of Energy Research and Innovation Act — so they are not kidding around when it comes to major new initiatives.

RTIC pulls all the brainpower of the sprawling agency into collaborative efforts just like this one.

That’s sprawling, as in sprawling with thousands of researchers on staff and thousands more in academic and private sector partnerships.

The Energy Storage Subcommittee of RTIC is co-chaired jointly by the Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy and Office of Electricity. The Office of Science, Office of Technology Transitions, ARPA-E (yep, it’s still alive and kicking), Office of Policy, the Loan Programs Office  despite efforts to kill it), and the Office of the Chief Financial Officer are all on board as committee members.

The Office of Fossil Energy and Office of Nuclear Energy also get a seat at the table, which makes sense from the perspective of accelerating research on heat-tolerant materials and other broad areas that cut across different ways to generate and store electricity.

However, with EERE and OE as a co-chairs it sure looks like the whole thing is designed to promote renewable energy at the expense of other sources.

World Domination, Energy Storage Style

The Energy Department is not just trying to keep up with the Joneses here. It is aiming for the US to dominate the global energy storage marketplace. In the process, it will steamroll all over the prospects for future growth in both coal and natural gas for power generation in the US.

The agency has already dropped a couple of huge hints about its intentions. For starters, it is launching a series of stakeholder workshops with the goal of developing a “coordinated R&D roadmap to 2030 for a broad suite of storage and flexibility technologies.”

Flexible is code for intermittent energy sources, namely wind and solar, so there’s one clue right there.

The Energy Department is also talking about “ambitious grid applications,” which is code for integrating more wind and solar in the grid along with more intensive use of smaller, decentralized power sources.

The agency already has an ambitious Grid Modernization Initiative well in hand with a focus on grid integration and distributed energy resources, and the new energy storage challenge dovetails neatly with that effort.

There are a couple of other interesting twists to the Energy Department’s big battery initiative. With an eye on national security, the challenge involves securing domestic supply chains for rare earths and other materials. That angle applies partly to wind and solar tech, as well as to energy storage.

The challenge also covers workforce development and training for “the next generation of American workers to meet the needs of the 21st century electric grid and energy storage value chain.”

That’s another area in which the Energy Department has been aggressive in terms of renewable energy. Dating back to the Obama administration, the agency has been promoting wind energy jobs and solar energy jobs, with a focus on employment for military veterans.

Circling around to that thing about Ivanka Trump’s keynote speech, by sheer coincidence her theme was preparing the US workforce for the future.

Interesting! Well, that must mean preparing for a future powered by renewable energy, because that is already happening.

CleanTechnica is reaching out to the Energy Department for some insights on how the new energy storage challenge fits into the corporate-based focus on workforce development articulated by Ivanka Trump at CES, so stay tuned for more on that.

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*Developing story.

(Originally appeared at our sister-site, Cleantechnica. Photo (cropped): Advanced sodium battery system via Pacific Northwest National Laboratory.)

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