A Visit to the Capitol Markets (Part 4—Final Installment)

4/3/09Follow @jmatheson

April 2—(I am back aboard Delta Airlines, this time in Seat 7B, slowly moving up in life…much smoother, too).

As expected, the two-day junket went quickly. Today was mainly a series of briefs from the Department of Energy’s Program Managers (the professional/career DOE staffers that manage the various technology verticals). In many ways, it was much less titillating than wandering around Capitol Hill, but these PMs are the folks who disperse significant money (with more coming from the Stimulus package) and influence grants, program direction, and technology priorities. Programs briefed included Solar, Biomass, Hydrogen/Fuel Cells, Federal Energy Management (efficiency programs), and Industrial Technologies.

A few things to keep in mind when one thinks of DOE. First, it was originally and remains in large part a nuclear agency, with the renewable (Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy) dimension being just a portion of the overall agency mandate. Second, the dollars flow in support of legislative mandate and are not always as broadly deployed as the technology/start-up community would like, or perhaps it should be.

Take biomass for example (of note, I am on the DOE/USDA Biomass Advisory Council), which is really about leveraging biomass for creating liquid transportation fuels, not for electricity or thermal generation. The biomass team certainly understands the broader play, but their mandate is to make the Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS) numbers of 16 billion-plus gallons of alternative biofuels by 2022. The solar program seems to be making good progress with the goal of grid parity (with incentives) by 2015. Currently that number is ~$3 per installed watt (total system cost), with the current average sitting at ~$5/watt for commercial and ~$6.5/watt for residential. A bit of a ways to go but getting there; as a data point, Bill Davis of Ze-gen (who is sitting next to me on the flight) is installing 10kW of solar panels at his home in Winchester at a cost of $78K, which less an $11K state rebate and a 30 percent tax credit brings the installed cost down to about $5/W. This provides a 7-year payback and does not yet factor in RECs, carbon credits, or the ability to sell excess capacity back to the grid. Pretty cool, thanks Bill…

Two other briefings are worth noting; first is the hydrogen/fuel cell program, which seems to be languishing as compared to the others—largely due to the immense technical hurdles associated with those technologies and difficult commercial deployment obstacles, although there are pockets of success emerging from the space. It will be interesting to see how hydrogen fares in the new Administration as it was moved to the fore again recently as a result of the Bush administration, the reasons for which could be a whole ‘nother discussion it seems. The other is the industrial technologies group, which … Next Page »

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