Wind power innovators are poised to get a $1 billion boost from Washington — that is, if the Senate goes along with the House in approving the Wind Energy Research and Development Act of 2009. The bill, which cleared the House late Wednesday in a voice vote, would authorize $200 million a year for five years starting in 2010 for a grant program out of the Department of Energy for wind research and demo projects. If enacted, this would roughly quadruple the DOE wind program’s annual budget (not counting $118 million in one-time stimulus funds), and go a long way toward the level of federal funding the wind industry says it requires in order to supply 20 percent of U.S. energy needs by 2030.
According to the text of the bill, “In recent years much of the federal wind program has focused on testing and evaluation of commercial turbines rather than advanced research, leading to gaps in our national wind R&D portfolio.” In response, legislators have approved funds for a far-reaching program that would open a new spigot of capital for companies and researchers working on technologies ranging from computational modeling tools and advanced control systems to blade sensors, turbine materials and large-scale components.
The bill also calls for the DOE to support work on “technical processes to enable scalability of transmission” from remote, high-wind areas to urban demand centers — a key choke point for renewable energy developers. As Michael Liebreich, CEO of London-based research firm New Energy Finance, explains in a recent GigaOM Pro article (subscription required), transmission technology advances are needed to accommodate a big influx of renewable energy on the grid. “It’s the system problems that can be real deal killers.”
The funding could be a boon for a group of innovators that often fly under the radar when it comes to discussions of wind technology: nanotech developers. As the San Francisco Chronicle writes, Rep. Paul Tonko (D-NY), who sponsored the bill (and previously served as president and CEO of New York State’s energy R&D authority), expects the program to “leverage nanoscience research by businesses and research institutions that are working at the molecular level to create lighter and more durable materials.”
Offshore wind technology — which is more expensive, kilowatt-for-kilowatt, than land-based projects — gets special mention in the bill as an area of focus for the DOE program. But several big offshore projects are already on the horizon (Deepwater Wind is working on two projects in the northeast slated to have a total capacity of some 750 MW by 2012, although the development process for this kind of installation can easily span a decade), and utilities committing to a growing number of power purchasing agreements with renewable developers — so companies can’t exactly wait for the results of five years’ worth of government-funded R&D before they enter the race in earnest and start building their business.
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