FYI: The AIP Bulletin of Science Policy News

Uncertain Outlook for DOE’s Energy Innovation Hubs

Richard M. Jones
Number 95 - July 20, 2009  |  Search FYI  |   FYI Archives  |   Subscribe to FYI

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A major initiative in this spring’s budget submission for the Department of Energy was a $280 million request for the establishment of eight Energy Innovation Hubs in FY 2010. The appropriators’ reaction was muted, with the House and Senate versions of the FY 2010 Energy and Water Development Appropriations Bill providing funding for - at best - only a few of the Hubs.

This FYI reviews the FY 2010 request, Senate and House actions, a comparison of the Hubs and Energy Frontier Research Centers, and the Outlook:

FY 2010 Request:

A section of DOE’s FY 2010 “Budget Highlights” document describes the Innovation Hubs as follows:

“In FY 2010 the Department proposes to fund eight multi-disciplinary Energy Innovation Hubs at a total of $280 million to address basic science, technology, and economic and policy issues hindering the Nation’s ability to become energy secure and economically strong while reducing Greenhouse Gas (GHG) emissions. The purpose of the Hubs is to support cross-disciplinary research and development focused on the barriers to transforming energy technologies into commercially deployable materials, devices and systems. They advance highly promising areas of energy science and technology from their early stages of research to the point that the risk level will be low enough for industry to deploy into the marketplace. This initial set of research Hubs will explore the following topics: Solar Electricity; Fuels from Sunlight; Batteries and Energy Storage; Carbon Capture and Storage; Grid Materials, Devices, and Systems; Energy Efficient Building Systems Design; Extreme Materials; and Modeling and Simulation.”

Senate Action:

The Senate Committee report accompanying the Energy and Water Development Appropriations bill had a mixed response to the request to the eight Energy Innovation Hubs. The report language follows:

Solar Energy: "No funds are provided for the Solar Electricity Energy Innovation Hub."

Building Technologies: “No funds are provided for the Equipment Standards and Analysis Hub.”

Electricity Delivery and Energy Reliability: “No funding is provided for the Grid Materials, Devices and Systems Hub.”

Fossil Energy Research and Development - Fuels and Power Systems: "The Committee recommends $160,200,000 for Carbon Sequestration activities but does not support the request for the hub.”

Generation IV Nuclear Energy Systems - Fuel Cycle Research and Development: “The Committee recommends $145,000,000 for this program, the same as current year levels. The Committee cannot support the proposed innovation hub in extreme materials in light of the termination of the LANSCE Facility upgrade at Los Alamos, which offers the best existing opportunity to serve the extreme materials research mission.”

Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy - Facilities and Infrastructure: "If the Department is able to change the funding source for this project, the Committee supports the Department using the $44,000,000 to fund the proposed Fuels From Sunlight and Energy Efficient Building Systems hubs at $22,000,000 each."

Generation IV Nuclear Energy Systems: "The Committee does believe advanced computing and simulation can play a critical role in developing advanced fuels and modeling reactor performance. As such, the Committee supports the establishment of the Energy Innovation Hub for Modeling and Simulation."

There was no comment in the Senate report about the proposed Energy Innovation Hub that would receive funding through the Basic Energy Sciences program of the DOE Office of Science.

House Action:

House appropriators recommended funding for only one of the Hubs to be under the Basic Energy Sciences program. The House report language stated the following about the other Hubs:

Solar Energy: “No funding is provided within this amount for the Solar Electricity Energy Innovation Hub requested by the Department.”

Electricity Delivery and Energy Reliability Research and Development: “No funding is provided within this amount for the Grid Materials, Devices, and Systems Energy Innovation Hub requested by the Department.”

Fuel Cycle Research and Development: “No funding is provided for the Extreme Materials Energy Innovation Hub.”

Carbon Sequestration: “No funds are provided for the Carbon Capture and Storage Energy Innovation Hub.”

Nuclear Energy Research and Development: “No funds are provided for the Modeling and Simulation Hub.”

Basic Energy Sciences: “The Committee recommendation for Basic Energy Sciences is $1,675,000,000, $10,500,000 below the request. Within this sum, the Committee recommends $35,000,000 for one Energy Innovation Hub as described [below] in the Research and Development Initiatives section of this report.”

The House report contains extensive language on the appropriators’ thinking about the Hubs:

“The Department currently supports a variety of research and development efforts that advance U.S. scientific innovation in multiple disciplines. It funds core programmatic research and development in national labs, universities, private industry, and other research organizations for a variety of topic areas. Coordinating all of these efforts has commanded increased attention. The Department recently began several research and development initiatives focusing researchers on a discrete science or applied energy problem for a limited period of time. The Department initiated three Bioenergy Research Centers in late 2007 to focus basic and applied researchers under one roof on the scientific obstacles to next-generation biofuels production. In early 2009, the Department announced 46 Energy Frontier Research Centers (EFRCs) funded by the Department at $2,000,000-$5,000,000 annually to ‘enlist the talents and skills of the very best American scientists and engineers to address current fundamental scientific roadblocks to clean energy and energy security.’ The budget request includes an additional $100,000,000 to continue and expand this effort. Also in 2009, the Department announced a solicitation for the Advanced Research Projects Agency--Energy (ARPA-E), which will fund discrete projects conducting research and development to commercialize ‘transformational energy-related technologies’.

“In the fiscal year 2010 budget request, the Department introduced an ambitious concept for advancing research and development. It would provide $280,000,000 to establish eight Energy Innovation Hubs, described as ‘multidisciplinary [Hubs], which focus on critical science and technology for high-risk, high-reward research to revolutionize how the U.S. produces, distributes, and uses energy.’ The request provides $35,000,000 for each of eight Hubs, to continue at $25,000,000 per Hub annually for a possible total investment of more than $2,000,000,000 over ten years.

“The Hubs have the potential to be an innovative concept to fill research gaps in advancing transformative energy science and technology. However, the Committee has a number of concerns. First, the Hubs appear to be redundant with existing Department research topics and initiatives. The EFRCs, Bioenergy Research Centers, ARPA-E, and the proposed Hubs aim to produce transformative energy technologies by focusing on ‘high-risk, high-reward’ research. These different initiatives take similar approaches while varying in size, implementation details, and emphasis on basic or applied research. Further, proposed research topics at the Energy Innovation Hubs overlap significantly with existing Department of Energy research centers. For example, the Department proposes a Hub to research batteries and energy storage. However, more than ten of the Energy Frontier Research Centers announced by the Department in early 2009 plan to, exclusively or in large part, investigate that topic. A new set of centers with overlapping research goals risks adding confusion and redundancy to the existing fleet of research and development initiatives.

“Second, the Department has not communicated sufficient planning and implementation details for the proposed Hubs. The individual program offices responsible for the proposed Hubs have not articulated consistent approaches and plans for site selection, staffing, and progress measurement. Program offices have not been consistent on even the most basic questions, such as whether or not each Hub will have its own physical location or will be a virtual collection of researchers.

“The Committee believes the Hubs are a promising concept and provides $35,000,000 to establish one Energy Innovation Hub under the Office of Science's Basic Energy Sciences program. The Committee gives discretion for this appropriation to the Secretary of Energy to select one of the Department's eight proposed Energy Innovation Hubs. The Committee further directs the Department, within 60 days of enactment of this Act, to submit to the Committee a report detailing the Department's site selection process, progress measurement plan, and the Hub's specific research goals and milestones. The Committee further directs the Department, not later than April 1, 2010, to report on the selected Hub's progress, including site selection, staffing, and progress towards research goals. The report shall also include the Department's plan for incorporating input from industry and the scientific community when it selects research topics for Hubs in future budget requests.

“The Committee strongly supports the Department's efforts to develop new and innovative approaches to solving energy science and technology problems. It offers its support in developing the promising Hub concept further, and will reconsider additional Energy Innovation Hubs when the Department addresses the concerns described in this section and demonstrates progress with the selected Hub funded in this Act.”

Comparison:

The proposed FY 2010 funding for the Innovation Hubs was the subject of a recent discussion by a DOE official. An exhibit outlined the differences between the Energy Frontier Research Centers (EFRC) and the Energy Innovation Hubs, which is used as a basis in the below comparison:

EFRC: “Basic research to advance fundamental knowledge critical to energy. Focus on fundamental understanding”
HUB: “Integrate basic and applied research to accelerate technology development and commercialization. Focus on both scientific and technical milestones”

EFRC: “Deliverables: Knowledge widely disseminated, with the goal of impacting future directions in basic and applied research and technology development”
HUB: “Deliverables: New scientific knowledge, materials, components, or systems that transform energy technologies”

EFRC: “Awarded @ $2 - 5 M/yr for 5-yr with specific research scopes. Renewals based on scientific advancement”
HUB: Providing initial $10 million start-up funding in addition to $25M/yr for 5-yr. Renewal base[d] on scientific advancement as well as technology impact”

EFRC: “Topics selected from a large set of general energy-relevant areas; FOA [Funding Opportunity Announcement] was broad”
HUB: “Topics selected by the [Energy] Secretary are deemed the most critical; FOAs are specific”

EFRC: “Strong ties with BES [Basic Energy Sciences] core research program”
HUB: “Encourage industrial collaborations including system analysis and integration”

EFRC: “One lead institution, home to many of the investigators. Multiple partner institutions allowed.”
HUB: “Ideally a central location – co-location of intellectual leadership is important for R&D integration”

A second exhibit explained that “Both EFRC and Hub will:”

“Pursue ‘outside-the-box’ approaches, including experimental, computation, and theoretical methods”

“Address grand energy challenges and accelerate advances towards transformative energy technologies”

“Be selected by open competition based on peer reviews”

“Be led by university, national lab, or industry”

“Consist of multi-disciplinary, multi-investigator, and multi-institutional team of researchers”

“Be a self-assembled group with one lead institution”

Outlook:

The House of Representatives passed its version of the Energy and Water Development Appropriations Bill on Friday; the Senate has not scheduled floor time for its bill. Ultimate funding for the Innovation Hubs will be decided in a conference committee that will convene after the Senate passes its version of the legislation.

Richard M. Jones
Media and Government Relations Division
American Institute of Physics
rjones@aip.org
301-209-3095