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Solar now costs 6¢ per kilowatt-hour, beating government goal by 3 years

Enlarge / From the Department of Energy: "This photo shows the construction phase of a 16.5 MW DC solar farm built in Oxford, MA. This 130-acre property was previously known as the largest piggery in Massachusetts." (credit: Lucas Faria/ US Department of Energy)

On Tuesday, the Department of Energy (DOE) announced that utility-grade solar panels have hit cost targets set for 2020, three years ahead of schedule. Those targets reflect around $1 per watt and 6¢ per kilowatt-hour in Kansas City, the department’s mid-range yardstick for solar panel cost per unit of energy produced (New York is considered the high-cost end, and Phoenix, Arizona, which has much more sunlight than most other major cities in the country, reflects the low-cost end).

Those prices don’t include an Investment Tax Credit (ITC), which makes solar panels even cheaper. The Energy Department said that the cost per watt was assessed in terms of total installed system costs for developers. That means the number is based on "the sales price paid to the installer; therefore, it includes profit in the cost of the hardware," according to a department presentation (PDF).

The National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL), a DOE-funded lab that assesses solar panel cost, wrote that, compared to the first quarter in 2016, the first quarter in 2017 saw a 29-percent decline in installed cost for utility-scale solar, which was attributed to lower photovoltaic module and inverter prices, better panel efficiency, and reduced labor costs. Despite the plummeting costs for utility-scale solar, costs for commercial and residential solar panels have not fallen quite as quickly—just 15 percent and 6 percent, respectively.

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Report: Draft of DOE baseload study says wind, solar don’t threaten reliability

Enlarge / Solar panels, Ferrisburgh, Vermont, June 15, 2016. (Photo by Robert Nickelsberg/Getty Images) (credit: Getty Images)

On Friday evening, Bloomberg reported that it has seen an early draft of a study from the Department of Energy (DOE) concluding that renewable energy like wind and solar are not a threat to the reliability of the grid at present. The study was commissioned at the request of Energy Secretary Rick Perry.

If this draft is an accurate reflection of what would be in the final study, the results would be surprising. Perry sent his staffers a memo back in April which never mentioned renewable energy by name but called out “certain policies” that have contributed to the “erosion of critical baseload resources,” like coal, natural gas, nuclear, and hydroelectric power. The tone of the memo, which accused Obama-administration policies of destroying jobs and “[undercutting] the performance of the grid well into the future,” seemed to make the results of the baseload study a fait accompli, which would allow the DOE to set policies to support the coal industry.

Bloomberg says that the July-dated draft contradicts insinuations that renewable energy is the cause of coal plant closures. Instead, the draft blames the low price of natural gas for a market that has been giving less love to coal over the past few years. “Costly environmental regulations and subsidized renewable generation have exacerbated baseload power plant retirements,” Bloomberg quotes from the draft. “However, those factors played minor roles compared to the long-standing drop in electricity demand relative to previous expectation and years of low electric prices driven by high natural gas availability.”

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Obama’s Energy Secretary is starting a low-carbon energy think tank

Enlarge / PARIS, FRANCE - 2015/12/08: US Secretary of Energy Ernest Moniz talks during a panel at the COP21, United Nations Climate Change Conference in Paris. (credit: Getty Images)

Former Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz announced that he is establishing an energy-focused think tank to provide research and analysis for state and local governments, industry leaders, and NGOs.

The organization, called Energy Futures Initiative (EFI), aims to provide analytical and technical reports on a wide variety of energy-related topics. The first eight topics that EFI will address are listed on its website and cover areas from “Modernizing the North American Energy Sector” to “Decarbonization of Energy Systems” and “Evolution of Natural Gas Markets.”

The EFI’s first study, called “Modernizing the North American Energy Sector,” is due in the fall, and group spokesman David Ellis said that the group is currently working on three or four topics. The report will take a look at baseload energy and grid reliability, with a view to providing strategies for regional energy authorities to modernize their systems and improve reliability. That may sound startlingly similar to a baseload study that current DOE secretary Rick Perry has ordered, which is due out at the end of this month. But in his Wednesday morning announcement at the National Press Club in Washington, DC, Moniz stressed that EFI’s study is not in response or related to Perry’s study. “I want to emphasize that this... initiative has been in formation now since—basically since we left the Department in January. It is not in response to recent events.”

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US gov’t taps The Machine to beat China to exascale supercomputing


With China threatening to build the world's first exascale supercomputer before the US, the US Department of Energy has awarded a research grant to Hewlett Packard Enterprise to develop an exascale supercomputer reference design based on technology gleaned from the The Machine, a project that aims to "reinvent the fundamental architecture of computing."

The DoE historically operated most of the world's top supercomputers, but in recent years China has taken over in dramatic fashion. China's top supercomputer, Sunway TaihuLight, currently has five times the peak performance (93 petaflops) of Oak Ridge's Titan (18 petaflops). The US has gesticulated grandiosely about retaking the supercomputing crown with an exascale (1,000 petaflops, 1 exaflops) supercomputer that would be operational by 2021ish, but China is seemingly forging ahead at a much faster clip: in January, China's national supercomputer centre said it would have a prototype exascale computer built by the end of 2017 and operational by 2020.

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Newly-signed federal spending bill spares energy research for 4 months


On Friday afternoon, President Trump signed a bipartisan spending bill negotiated in the House to fund the federal government through September 30, 2017. The bill contained funding for energy-related programs and offices that the president has called to be defunded. And, late this week, the Department of Energy (DOE) internally announced a cancellation of its grant freeze.

The omnibus spending bill was put together by House representatives over the previous weekend to avert a government shutdown. The bill was approved by the Senate on Thursday, and, with Trump’s signature, it became official.

Within the bill, the DOE’s Office of Science will get an extra $42 million for the 2017 fiscal year. Trump’s 2018 budget proposal wants to cut funding for this office by $900 million. That same 2018 budget proposal also called for the elimination of the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E), but this week’s spending bill will provide ARPA-E $306 million, reflecting a $15 million increase from the year 2016.

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