Federal investment in resource efficiency, soft cost reductions, transmission as well as targeted research and development (R&D) are all key to propelling solar and wind technology growth, industry leaders told the House Subcommittee on Energy on Wednesday.
Wind farms are underperforming and transportation logistics are getting trickier as individual wind turbines grow in size, National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) Science and Technology Officer and Deputy Laboratory Director Peter Green testified. And reducing solar soft costs, such as installation logistics and grid integration, could reduce overall costs by as much as $1/watt, said Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA) President and CEO Abby Hopper.
- But there was disagreement among industry officials testifying at the hearing on the role the federal government should play. "The federal government does not have the characteristics or competency to be a startup accelerator," said Kenny Stein, director of policy at the Institute for Energy Research (IER).
The balance between welcoming critical federal funding and government overreach is toed by many in the clean energy industry.
As electricity prices from solar and wind continue to drop and become competitive in the market, some say government interference will only derail a booming market by not letting the technologies compete on merit. But those technologies did not become cost-competitive on their own, others note, adding that federal funding has been and will continue to be integral in propelling the clean energy market forward.
"If we look back to 2010, we were at 0.1 GW of solar deployed in the U.S. At the end of this year, we'll have over 70 GW," said Hopper. She credited the falling costs that drove such a dramatic deployment to federal funding for basic research, which helped bring the technology to commercial viability. But soft costs have become an obstacle to efficient deployment.
"How do we bring people together to solve problems that are really too big for one company to solve?" she asked. "One company is not incentivized to figure out how every building inspector in the United States is going to more efficiently inspect solar systems on grids … The federal government is uniquely positioned to do that."
Wind has also seen enormous benefit from federal funding and programming, noted both Green and American Wind Energy Association President and CEO Tom Kiernan. But similar to solar, small tweaks are essential to maximizing output, such as streamlining state transmission permit processes, said Kiernan.
Transmission as a whole is imperative to greater integration of diverse resources on the grid, as well as lower electricity costs, he said. Along with larger high voltage direct current transmission line deployment, there are opportunities for smaller transmission lines to connect across power markets.
"So, actually getting the different grid operators to plan together where they might collectively build transmission lines across these different seams between the different grids is also a really important way to advance the grid," said Kiernan.
"I'd be interested in specific research areas there that the government might consider investing in," said Rep. Bill Foster, D-Ill.
Primary and late stage R&D, digitization of wind farm operations to better manage multiple turbines, and integrating wind with solar and storage are other key areas of development for the wind industry, he noted.
And offshore wind development needs more attention, according to Green, who said the U.S. needs to be able to produce offshore wind off the east and west coasts as well as the Great Lakes at half the current cost. In that realm, research is needed to smooth out floating turbine technology so offshore wind towers can be deployed anywhere, regardless of water depth, he added.
Wind and solar representatives also noted battery storage will be key to greater renewable energy deployment and reliability as the grid diversifies.