Energy industry executives urge increased public-private partnerships, funding for R&D

Published on February 16, 2017 by Daily Energy Insider Reports

Energy industry executives who testified before the House Energy and Commerce Committee’s Energy Subcommittee on Wednesday stressed the importance of expanding public-private collaboration on energy technology and basic science research, as well as increased funding for research and development (R&D).

The hearing explored ways the United States could increase its economic competitiveness by removing the barriers to innovation and modernization of the nation’s energy infrastructure.

“We partner a tremendous amount with the Department of Energy and their National Labs,” Michael Howard, president and CEO of the Electric Power Research Institute, told the subcommittee. “It’s an incredible resource that we have in the U.S. unlike any other country. It’s important that we continue to encourage the development of basic research that will help us address many of the issues that we’re facing here today.”

When U.S. Rep. Scott Peters (D-CA) asked Howard to characterize the funding levels for R&D, he responded simply: “low.”

The energy industry witnesses highlighted the importance of both basic and applied research, as well as demonstrations, for being able to properly implement advancements such as smart technologies, increased integration of distributed and other resources and emissions-reducing systems like carbon capture. They also emphasized the importance of the Department of Energy’s (DOE) National Labs.

“There is a lot of innovation that’s occurring at the National Labs,” Howard said. “I’ve been to many of the National Labs. I go there. I look at what they’re doing, and it is incredible … We need to reinforce the importance of that and then get it out and get it applied.”

Steve Hauser, the CEO of GridWise Alliance – a group representing stakeholders that design, build and operate the electric grid – emphasized that federal funding support is especially important for demonstrations of new technologies due to their high cost. These demonstrations are important, Hauser said, because they allow companies to be confident that a new technology will perform correctly before it is implemented into the electricity system.

U.S. Rep. Michael Doyle (D-PA) highlighted the importance of implementing a suggestion from DOE’s Quadrennial Energy Review to expand access to funding for analytical capabilities for state Public Utilities Commissions and improve access to training and expertise for smaller utilities, a sentiment Hauser agreed with.

Doyle pointed out, however, that the current budget sequester makes it difficult to increase funding for basic research. “We’ve all got to find a way to get out of that sequester,” he added.

Hauser also expressed concern that the current administration would decrease DOE’s R&D funding. Reports have surfaced recently that President Donald Trump may cut funding to the department, an outcome Energy Secretary Rick Perry has said he would defend against.

“I’m certainly concerned that our current administration will look at DOE and look at it as an opportunity to reduce the funding for the good R&D that they do,” Hauser said. “As I’m sure you know, the funding at DOE has gone up and down over the years. That’s not a good thing. It’s difficult to manage against budgets that increase and decrease a lot. I think stability is very important for an R&D mission.”

Meanwhile, Ganesh Bell, chief digital officer and general manager of Software and Analytics at General Electric, said the digital transformation of the electricity industry and its infrastructure represents a major opportunity to lift the competitiveness of the nation’s energy sector. Besides adding skilled jobs, it will allow power producers and utilities to deliver electricity to customers at a lower cost.

Cloud computing combined with data science, low-cost sensors and the Internet of Things is allowing physical energy infrastructure to merge with digital systems. Already 600 million smart meters are connected, and more than 20 billion devices are forecast to be connected by 2025, Bell said.

“GE customers such as New York Power Authority, PSEG, NRG and Exelon are already realizing these opportunities to improve the reliability, resiliency and security of our nation’s critical infrastructure,” Bell said.

“If we can accelerate the deployment of these technologies to the entire industry, the United States has an opportunity to ensure that the country that invented the grid once again has the world’s best electricity infrastructure,” he added.