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Q&A: DOE Loan Officer Jump-Starts Clean Energy Technologies

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Peter W. Davidson, 54, a former investment banker and entrepreneur, is bringing the U.S. Energy Dept.'s 8-year-old Loan Programs Office (LPO) back to life following $527 million in controversial loans made to the solar-panel maker Solyndra, which declared bankruptcy in 2011. As executive director, Davidson oversees a 180-person staff and $50-billion loan budget for clean-energy projects, including nuclear power and advanced car technologies. Prior to leading LPO, Davidson was senior advisor for energy and economic development at the Port Authority of New York & New Jersey.

ENR's Tony Illia submitted a list of questions, and Davidson responded by email. His replies have been edited for space. 

Davidson: Utility-scale solar has become a big part of our present energy supply, setting a record with 2.3 gigawatts installed in 2013, and it will continue to play an important role in our all-of-the-above energy strategy. Our goal is to finance the commercial deployment of innovative technologies, demonstrate that they work at commercial scale and then let the private markets take over. We've seen that happen with utility-scale photovoltaic solar. The loan programs helped finance the first five utility-scale photovoltaic plants larger than 100 MW in the U.S. These projects helped prove to private industry the technology was viable and cost-effective. The subsequent 10 utility-scale PV projects were privately financed without [DOE] support. We're hopeful a similar pattern will emerge with concentrating solar power [CSP]. Four of the world's five largest CSP plants operating or under construction are supported by our loan programs.

Each technology has its benefits, which is why they will both play a large role in our all-of-the-above energy strategy. That is why it is so important for us to "prove out" a variety of innovative technologies at commercial scale.

For both technologies, grid integration will be a major component of their next significant development. Among other things, that could come in the form of energy storage, microgrids or hybrid plants that marry renewables with fossil fuels.

We're very excited to have helped finance some of the most innovative solar-thermal energy-storage projects in the world. Energy storage helps to address a key challenge faced by solar, ensuring that it can smoothly and more consistently deliver electricity to the grid.

When the Solana project came online in Arizona, it became the first in the United States to use molten-salt storage, which allows it to provide up to six hours of electricity after the sun has set. The Crescent Dunes project in Tonopah, Nev., will be the first to combine power-tower technology with molten-salt storage, which will provide up to 11 hours of electricity.

The department is working along the entire technology development curve to help … solar and wind energy. In solar, Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy [ARPA-E] announced $30 million in investments for 12 projects to develop transformational hybrid solar-energy technologies that deliver cost-effective power when the sun isn't shining. [DOE's] SunShot Initiative announced a $25- million funding opportunity to help solar-energy manufacturers and the solar supply chain tackle key cost contributors, such as raw materials, labor and capital expenses, and make improvements to labor- intensive solar manufacturing processes.

The department is also partnering with Sacramento Municipal Utility District [SMUD], investing $10 million to integrate utility-scale CSP technology with SMUD's 500-MW natural-gas-fired Cosumnes Power Plant in an effort to demonstrate cost-competitive CSP-fossil fuel power-generating systems.

For wind energy, ARPA-E is funding some exciting, early-stage research and development, like airborne wind technology. The Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy is helping the demonstration phase by funding seven advanced-technology offshore wind projects, totaling $168 million over six years. And LPO helped to finance Shepherds Flat, one of the world's largest wind farms, proving onshore wind at large scale. Now, onshore wind is a mature commercial technology that has recruited nearly $90 billion of private investment into new energy infrastructure over the past five years.

Ensuring that Americans have access to reliable energy all comes down to an all-of-the-above strategy. That's why the LPO helped to finance the initial commercial deployments of utility-scale PV and CSP, thermal-energy storage, large-scale onshore wind and the first new nuclear reactors in three decades. And that's why we have an $8-billion advanced fossil-energy solicitation to help deploy innovative technologies that utilize fossil fuels while reducing their greenhouse-gas emissions.


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