SunShot director talks new funding, future of program under Trump

The Department of Energy recently announced $46.2 million for 48 projects as part of its SunShot Initiative. How do these projects tie into efficiency and reliability goals, and what is the future of funding under the Trump administration? During today's OnPoint, Charlie Gay, director of the SunShot Initiative, explains how new technologies could drive renewables ahead of traditional baseload sources.


Monica Trauzzi: Hello, and welcome to OnPoint. I'm Monica Trauzzi. With me today is Charlie Gay, director of the SunShot Initiative at the Department of Energy. Charlie, it's nice to see you.

Charlie Gay: Thank you, Monica.

Monica Trauzzi: Thanks for joining me.

Charlie Gay: Good to be here.

Monica Trauzzi: So DOE recently announced $46.2 million for 48 projects as part of the SunShot Initiative. Talk a bit about the vision of these projects and how they tie into reliability and efficiency goals.

Charlie Gay: Sure. So the projects are broadly split into two categories, photovoltaics-related and what we call technology-to-market-related. And they're almost 50-50. On the photovoltaic side, there's small, innovative, early stage R&D projects that are funded, largely with universities, all the way through to work that relates to optimizing DC wiring and PV systems into the power grid. On the tech-to-market side, that's where we basically work with small businesses who are working to scale an idea, see if they can commercialize it and build up a larger self-supporting industry around their ideas. And those ideas also span the full gamut from fundamental science-based work all the way through to systems monitoring and tracking work.

Monica Trauzzi: So these technologies are focused on improving reliability in many cases. We're currently awaiting DOE's anticipated grid reliability study. How could new technologies like these drive renewables ahead of traditional baseload sources?

Charlie Gay: So, for example, among the tech-to-market awardees is a small company called SenSanna. That's a company that's looking at a new technique called surface acoustic wave technology, basically a contactless way of helping look at the distribution grid and being able to link information from local neighborhoods into what the grid operator needs to know to optimize the different sources of energy and the different loads within a neighborhood.

On the photovoltaic side, the project with the Electric Power Research Institute looks at how systems operating at 1,500 volts direct current can tie into power plant use in the grid. And that extends all the way through to future opportunities that relate to putting battery storage with the power plant.

Monica Trauzzi: With so many Obama-era energy policies and initiatives being rolled back under the Trump administration, why do you believe SunShot continues to receive support?

Charlie Gay: Because of job creation primarily. We have over 260,000 jobs in this industry. We add 1,000 new jobs every week here in America. Those jobs' average wage is $26 an hour, and they're not exportable jobs. These are mainly in the installation and deployment part of the value chain. And so we've got momentum that we can continue to build on.

Monica Trauzzi: And I know that you're not able to speak about the administration's energy agenda, but what can you share about the future of the SunShot Initiative under the Trump administration?

Charlie Gay: Well, whether it's the Trump administration, the House or Senate marks for funding of solar, all of them, there's significant money. There's almost $70 million from the administration budget side. There's a lot we can do with $70 million working to continue the momentum that we've built in solar. And for me what's really important here is the number of people who are in this industry. There's a foundation that is the strength of this industry where we have a lot of well-educated workers in the field all the way upstream to academia where new students entering this field can understand the underpinnings of the industry and can find good jobs as they leave school.

Monica Trauzzi: And are there any other funding plans for new projects in the works?

Charlie Gay: We currently have activities that are in the pipeline for funding programs in concentrating solar, so in the solar program at DOE, the two primary technology areas are photovoltaics and concentrating solar. These, for example, are like power towers, heliostats, mirrors in the desert focusing energy onto a receiver, and then essentially generating heat that runs a turbine. And we have work that is called system integration work. That's work that connects, whether it's concentrating solar or PV, into the grid, both on the generation end of the grid and on the distribution side of the grid.

Monica Trauzzi: You touched briefly earlier on the budget. If the Solar Energy Technologies Office sees big budget cuts, how will SunShot be impacted, and will progress on solar be stymied?

Charlie Gay: I expect — I've been in solar for 43 years. I've seen the ups and downs of budget cycles. Almost all of my career has been in industry where at least once a year the boss asks what are you doing with my money. And in a sense, we're in a similar spot. What is it that's being done with the taxpayer money here? I've been the beneficiary of innovations that have come from SunShot, working in companies to scale those ideas. That momentum isn't going to stop.

Monica Trauzzi: All right. We'll end it right there. Thank you for coming on the show. Nice to see you.

Charlie Gay: My pleasure, Monica. Thank you.

Monica Trauzzi: And thanks for watching. We'll see you back here tomorrow.

[End of Audio]



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