Applied and basic energy research was proposed to receive big increases in the 2012 budget released today. Underscoring the nearly exalted status of
energy research in a budget that goes after some otherwise liberal favorites, the Department of Energy's (DOE's) proposed SunShot Initiative would increase research on solar photovoltaics from $126 million to $337 million.
Mentioned in the State of the Union address but detailed in today's rollout at DOE, the initiative's goal would be to cut the cost of industrial solar
photovoltaics, now $1.95 to $2.35 per watt, to $1 per watt by the end of the decade, making it competitive with other energy sources on a utility
without subsidy. Until now, concentrated solar, which uses the sun's rays to make heat and then electricity, has been the biggest area of investment by
utilities in solar power. (The biggest modern solar facility in the United States is SolarOne, a 64-MW concentrated solar facility south of Las Vegas, Nevada.) "The idea is to
make PV scaleable like that," says policy expert Scott Sklar of the Stella Group, a Washington, D.C.-based technology firm.
To do so, DOE wants to tackle the problem from all directions.
Partnering on the initiative would be ARPA-E and the Office of Science,
which will each offer basic research that they hope could have fast dividends. Energy Secretary Steven Chu described how SunShot would also task
scientists to come up with cheaper ways to make relatively old technology, slashing the cost of equipment that works the same way as the solar cells on
office calculators. The effort will also target "balance-of-system": the parts of solar installations apart from solar cells. "The racking, the
inverters, the power conditioning equipment is less reliable and in many cases more expensive than the solar cells," says Sklar. DOE wants to expand
research into testing and reliability standards, land use, and permitting to get at every aspect of the cost conundrum.
Given House of Representatives appropriators' interest in cutting renewable energy programs, among a myriad of targets, it's likely the initiative will
face big political hurdles on Capitol Hill. "The Republican approach is not to do this," says Sklar. He hopes in the end that both sides will split the
difference. "This is a dance," he says.
Elsewhere, applied and basic energy research was proposed to receive huge increases. DOE proposed an increase of 44% over the 2010 level for the Energy
Efficiency and Renewable Energy office at the department, under which solar energy sits, to $3.2 billion, with increases for wind power, geothermal
energy, and various energy efficiency programs. ARPA-E, as expected, was proposed to receive a huge, $550 million
boost. The Energy Innovation Hubs, a priority of Chu's, were given a boost from three hubs at $75 million in the 2010 budget to six hubs at $146
See our complete
coverage of Budget 2012.