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How 3 ARPA-E Grants Could Reinvent Building Efficiency

384px-ToggleswitchThe Department of Energy this week announced the first round of grants under its Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E) program, which was created to back risky but potentially breakthrough technologies. Out of the 37 projects awarded grants, three are focused on improving building energy efficiency and could help spur what Secretary of Energy Steven Chu hopes will be “the next Industrial Revolution in clean energy technologies.”

Stanford University

Stanford University, located in Silicon Valley, received $4.9 million from the DOE to research better tools for encouraging energy-saving behavior in homes and small businesses. The two-year project, which will look at smart grid and wireless sensor tech combined with behavioral science, is also expected to receive $1.28 million in matching grants from the university and the California Energy Commission. Project Director Carry Armel said Google (s GOOG) and California utility Pacific Gas & Electric (s PCG) are likely collaborators as well, but she declined to offer more details on their potential roles.

The Stanford project includes a dozen separate programs, spanning policy, building energy management systems, media and marketing, community-based programs and other tools for reducing energy consumption. For the building energy management portion, the goal is to develop improved analytics to help people automate energy savings in homes and small businesses. Armel said this effort will include research into how to guide people’s decision-making around energy use. Some of the other programs will focus on devising government incentives and online games, and perhaps school curriculum to teach kids about energy efficiency and ways to leverage social networks to encourage green retrofits. The Stanford team, which includes 18 faculty from 10 departments, hopes to develop, implement and assess pilot programs by the end of the two-year grant. But it might be another year or two before the findings could lead to large-scale deployment, such as through private sector or government-run initiatives, according to Armel.

ITN Energy Systems

Littleton, Colo.-based ITN Energy received $4.9 million from the DOE to develop new manufacturing technology for making low-cost, solid-state electrochromic windows, which can change their tint when they come in contact with electric current. The idea is to reduce energy use by allowing home and building owners to darken windows and block most of the solar radiation entering a building on hot days with the flip of a switch, thereby reducing reliance on air conditioning. On cooler days, these “smart windows” can be lightened to let in more heat from the sun.

The project will focus on reducing the cost of manufacturing electrochromic films by using “roll-to-roll production” in an effort to make the technology more cost competitive with conventional windows. Privately held ITN Energy, which did not return calls for an interview, will partner on the ARPA-E project with machine tool maker MAG Industrial Automation, non-profit research firm Electric Power Research Institute and the Colorado School of Mines, according to the DOE. Another company working on this technology is stealthy Milpitas, Calif.-based Soladigm.

ITN Energy was founded in 1994 and develops advanced products for aerospace, energy, biomedical and environment-related industries. Some of these products include energy generation and storage, wireless sensors, separation membranes and fuel cells.

Momentive Performance Materials

Strongsville, Ohio Albany, N.Y.-based Momentive received $4.5 million to develop a process for the inexpensive production of high-quality, single-crystal gallium nitride, a material commonly used in light-emitting diodes (LEDs). If successful, the process could lead to the production of LEDs that are “much more affordable” than those on the market today, according to Ed Farris, Momentive’s global marketing communications brand manager. Momentive, which will add about 20 percent of its own money to the DOE’s funding for the project, is partnering with solid-state crystal maker Advanced Photonic Crystals and Khosla Ventures-backed, solid-state lighting startup Soraa.

LEDs, if further developed, could cut future energy use for lighting by 30 percent, according to the DOE.  Momentive’s team will work to grow larger gallium nitride crystals with much fewer defects than is possible with current technology. This could lead to more lighting products from one wafer and therefore lower costs, Farris said. By the end of the two-year grant, Farris said the team hopes to have built a pilot facility for growing the crystals, but he cautioned that this was an “aggressive time frame.” He said it could take 5-10 more years before a commercial product is ready. Momentive is owned by private equity firm Apollo Management.