FREEING ENERGY

Podcast 061: Garrett Nilsen – The Department of Energy may be the best way to fund energy tech startups that no one knows about

Host Bill Nussey talks with Garrett Nilsen, Deputy Director of the Solar Industry Technologies Office in the US Department of Energy about the amazing and enormously practical scope and scale of DOE work across the energy landscape. Garrett explains how innovators and entrepreneurs can tap into vast resources to help vet, test, fund, pilot and even commercialize the energy technologies shaping our future. 

Here are a few of the insights from Garrett…

“…The Department of Energy wants to hear from you and understand how some of these larger buckets of money and resources can be marshaled to move your project forward. And obviously have it built in the United States.”


“…we’re really trying to move someone from a very early stage or pre-prototype stage all the way through to something that could be pilot tested in a commercial environment.”  


“…storage is going to be integral to how we integrate all of these assets with the electric grid and how we ultimately run our economy in the future.”


You can also listen to this podcast and others in our series on these platforms:

Bill Nussey and Dr. Jemma Green during the recording of the podcast

Useful Links

SETO (Solar Energy Technologies Office – United States Department of Energy). Click here to see SETO’s Multi-Year Program Plan.

Click here to sign up for the SETO newsletter to get the latest on funding opportunities and other prizes.

Click here for the EERE Exchange, which holds all DOE funding opportunities.

The American-Made Solar Prize Round 5 is open and seeking applications for hardware AND software innovations.

Click here for solar topics for SBIR/STTR.

Transcript

Bill Nussey:

Well, hello and welcome to all of the Freeing Energy podcast listeners. I am Bill Nussey and I will be your host today. I want to start by thanking all of you for listening in and helping us raise awareness and excitement around the changes coming in the world of energy. Local energy particularly.

Bill Nussey:

This is one of the most exciting changes and one of the quickest changes happening as the world transitions to clean energy. On our podcast, we are honored and privileged to share the stories and the insights of some of the world’s foremost experts who are working on clean energy and local energy.

Bill Nussey:

Today’s guest certainly fits the bill. So, I’m going to jump right in and introduce you to him. Welcome to Garrett Nilsen. He is the recently-promoted-to Deputy Director of the Solar Energy Technologies Office of the Department of Energy.

Bill Nussey:

This is a part of the U.S. government that not a lot of people have heard about, but it is doing some amazing work. Transforming the world and pushing us towards clean energy. So Garrett, I’m really excited to have you here today and welcome.

Garrett Nilsen:

Awesome. Thank you, Bill. Really excited to be here as well. Really excited to share what I can with your listeners.

Bill Nussey:

You’ve been in solar for much of your career. As we like to do on the podcast, start with sort of the backstory. How you got into the industry. So, tell us about what led you to be a solar leader in the world.

Garrett Nilsen:

Yeah, absolutely. It’s a great question. I can actually think of three very specific moments in my life that got me interested in solar energy, or at least set on a trajectory to work in solar energy. First was during Cub Scouts, actually. So, my father worked for an optics company and he showed me one time, on our driveway using a pretty powerful lens, to basically cook a frozen hot dog for a Merit Badge.

Garrett Nilsen:

That was the first time I ever really noticed, that, yeah, the sun has this amount of power. I mean, we reached the point where we’d even being able to burn a hole through the hot dog, with the size of lenses that we had. That was the first time I saw there’s a lot of power sitting behind the sun. That was kind of lodged in my brain.

Garrett Nilsen:

Fast-forward a few years, I was in high school. I grew up in Connecticut, outside Hartford. Every summer, I used to go to Baseball Camp in New Jersey. I just remember driving from Connecticut to New Jersey, passing New York City and just seeing the massive storage warehouses. Just thinking, “What are the rooftops of those things used for? I mean, that seems like a waste of space, could be doing power generation or growing plants, or something.”

Garrett Nilsen:

You have this space, in my mind, seemed underutilized, but for what? That was then lodged in my brain. Fast-forward a couple more years, it’s after college, I’m sitting in the dentist’s office waiting to inevitably, probably, get something drilled or at least checked out.

Garrett Nilsen:

There was a National Geographic that I was stumbling through. Inside that, there was an article which mentioned that, if we covered some percentage of urban and suburban rooftops with 2005 technology, that we could provide all the electricity for United States. It was at that moment that those three things just kind of came together in my head.

Garrett Nilsen:

“The sun is strong, there’s a lot of rooftops that are out there and if we cover enough rooftops with energy generation assets, we could potentially power the country.” It was really that technological drive and drive to use those rooftops that pulled me into the solar space. Took me a couple of years after that to get into it, but I haven’t looked back since.

Bill Nussey:

Garrett, that’s a great story and I love hearing it. Thank you for sharing. We’ve got so much to cover today and there are a couple of things I want to drill down on. I really think folks are going to be interested to learn about just what a broad and deep role the government’s playing in funding, not just new technologies, but actual startups.

Bill Nussey:

People that are in companies that are turning this stuff into commercial reality. It’s kind of neat, that you actually started outside the government, living the life of an entrepreneur and a startup person. So, tell us about your early experiences in Connecticut, with your early stage company there. Yeah, yeah, sure.

Garrett Nilsen:

Yeah, sure. So, Technology Solutions and Invention was a three-person company, put together specifically to pursue some government contracts in areas where we had some expertise, which was around optics-based tagging and tracking devices. Specifically for the militaries, the Department of Defense, Department of Homeland Security and the like.

Garrett Nilsen:

It was really interesting for me to see that end of the world, compared to DOE because for the DOD and DHS, they’re ultimately the end user. They are the customer, so you can design to their specifications and they can continually give you feedback about exactly how something might be used. Or, at least as much information as they are allowed to share, about how something might be used.

Garrett Nilsen:

While the Department of Energy, there is an element of where the government procures energy, but obviously, vast majority of the energy is consumed by non-government actors. Ultimately, we’re designing products on the hopes of the anticipated future energy sector needs. Then, putting those technologies out there, to hopefully have them adopted by the marketplace. Or, at least give the private sector an option to adopt it, should the market move in that direction.

Garrett Nilsen:

It was really interesting to just kind of see a little bit difference, in terms of how different sections of the U.S. government engage with entrepreneurs. The DOE certainly has its challenges cut out for it, by having to think about, not necessarily being the customer of sales, but thinking about what other entities are going to want out there.

Garrett Nilsen:

One thing that I would just say, in terms of part of one more element of what led me to the government is, no one working with the program managers that I had for my SBIR projects. It was them being able to look across 10, 15 different kinds of projects that are all sort of similar. But, solving the same problems, that really, again, got me interested in government.

Garrett Nilsen:

I think that the view that we get to have, and we get to see a variety of different solutions to similar problems. The wealth and the the variety of innovators and really help identify and bring to market this stuff that could really have an impact was was really interesting. What drew me to the Department of Energy writ large. It was definitely an interesting transition, to move from the awardee to now the government side of things, which I haven’t looked back since and I’m really enjoying,

Bill Nussey:

You know, I have a whole section in my book about, essentially, believe it or not, the government plays a very large role in the creation of the clean energy industry. Particularly focused on startups. When I first got into this industry, I literally didn’t believe it. I lived by the credo of the scariest sentence in the human language is “Hello, we’re from the government and we’re here to help.”

Bill Nussey:

I have been just so pleasantly surprised with the people I’ve met, great people to a person. I think that one of the things you can help spread the good word with, Garrett, is tell us a little bit about the Alphabet Soup that actually means hundreds of millions of dollars, real money to real companies.

Bill Nussey:

That’s one of the things I excited to hear you talk about today, but just a very brief overview of the kinds of programs that the Department of Energy and maybe other departments are offering to companies, to bring clean energy into the commercial world.

Garrett Nilsen:

Department of Energy has allocated tens of billions of dollars to run a variety of different programs. The section of the Department of Energy, the Solar Office is part of the Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy arm. In this current 2021 fiscal year, there’s well over $2 billion worth of funding related to research across the clean energy and energy efficiency space-

Bill Nussey:

Two billion dollars?

Garrett Nilsen:

Yeah, well over 2 billion-

Bill Nussey:

Wow.

Garrett Nilsen:

In this administration’s latest budget request, you’re going to see a much, much larger increase to that as well. So, a lot of funding going behind it. Our office, specifically, is in the neighborhood of about $280 million, or at least has been the last few years.

Garrett Nilsen:

Then, inside of that, we fund National Lab universities and a large, not insignificant portion of the funding does go to businesses as well. In fact, one of our teams, our Manufacturing Competitiveness team works almost exclusively with the private sector. They have funding upwards of $60 million.

Garrett Nilsen:

In terms of what vehicles we’re using to spend this money, there’s a few of them. The first that people might’ve heard of is SBIR, which is the Small Business Innovation Research program. This is a congressionally-mandated program that spreads across from the DOE to the Department of Defense, to the National Science Foundation to others.

Garrett Nilsen:

This is a program that is specifically focused on getting funding, research funding to small businesses. A small business is defined as any entity under 500 people. So, in this case, it’s a regular running funding program. Our solicitations get released every fall. There, you can find that, again, it’s set aside specifically for small businesses.

Garrett Nilsen:

There’s multiple stages where you can get a couple hundred thousand dollars and a second stage, up to over a million dollars. Some commercialization support as well. There’s a lot of funding and support that can be found through that program.

Bill Nussey:

Garrett, one of the things I want to make sure that people understand, because this is crazy. I mean, when I tell my non-clean energy friends about this, literally, they don’t believe me.

Bill Nussey:

When this money goes out, it’s not alone. It’s not like you’re taking 50% of the company. This is a grant. There are some that you have to deliver, you have to do some that you have to do a lot of paperwork. But, there is no corollary to this in other startup areas that I’m familiar with. Maybe in medicine, I don’t know, but, in, certainly the world I’ve come from, this is really unique.

Bill Nussey:

I just want to make sure that people realize, just that this is, as bad, as hard as raising money for venture capitalists, maybe a little easier in my experience, but this is a really big deal. People should know about this. So please, please continue.

Garrett Nilsen:

Absolutely, yeah. It is a grant. There’s not even a cost-share element that needs to be supplied by the company as well. It’s just cash in the government. It’s an entrepreneur’s three favorite words; non-dilutive funding. It’s something that you don’t have to give up part of your company to have it. Is really something that can be leveraged. It has been a springboard for many successful groups, to develop a product and help move it towards the market space.

Garrett Nilsen:

Now, along the vein of, in terms of congressionally-mandated programming, another great program that’s still relatively new, that not many people know about is called the Technology Commercialization Fund. In terms of this project, this is really looking to pair private sector entities with National Labs, to try to move innovative technology from the labs to the private sector.

Garrett Nilsen:

If you’re someone out there who’s engaged with National Labs and knows there’s a technology that you’d want to leverage, this is a funding program that can provide funds to the national lab to work with you. To transfer technology, help test your technology, even improve your technology, in the hopes of moving more national lab knowledge from the labs into the private sector. To benefit the U.S. commercially.

Garrett Nilsen:

More of our traditional funding programs are through vehicles called cooperative agreements. This is done for funding opportunity announcements, which we post on a place called EERE Exchange, which you can Google and I’m sure I’ll mention again, because it’s a great resource to find funding from across the Energy Efficiency Renewable Energy on the DOE.

Garrett Nilsen:

In this case, it’s a competitive award. Cooperative agreements mean that the DOE is involved in helping really negotiate the metrics and goals of your project, where we can identify what we see as stumbling blocks to getting certain technologies to the market.

Garrett Nilsen:

There is a cost-share element to it, so the companies also have to bring some. They have to have some amount of skin in the game, but you can get to higher dollar amounts than something like SBIR. Is a way that you really have our experts in the DUI kind of integrate in helping you move that technology forward.

Garrett Nilsen:

Our most common program is called the Solar Energy Technologies Office Incubator Program. I highly encourage folks to look it up as well, to see if that might fit their technology maturity level and business needs.

Bill Nussey:

Now, when you say incubator, I always think this is millions of dollars, right?

Garrett Nilsen:

Yes, yes.

Bill Nussey:

Incubator’s such a funny word to describe something that’s millions of dollars.

Garrett Nilsen:

Yeah, absolutely. I mean, it can be anywhere from a few hundred thousand dollars for a project, up to a couple million. It was a name that we came up with a few years back and it’s just kind of stuck. But, yeah, it’s where we try to incubate things that may be slightly a higher dollar amount than the normal incubator world.

Garrett Nilsen:

But, again, it’s all about just trying to accelerate innovative domestic ideas into the marketplace. Regardless of what you call it, we’re willing to put funds behind businesses with these really innovative ideas. Want to hear from them and want to support them.

Bill Nussey:

Two really fun facts about the Loan Program Office. One, is it funded Tesla early on in the days.

Garrett Nilsen:

Yeah.

Bill Nussey:

That helped, if you read the biographies of Tesla, it made a big difference. Not a lot of people know that Tesla paid it all back and the government made money on the investment. So, a great win-win-win story. For those people who are aficionados of clean energy podcasts, the most famous clean energy podcast guy is Jigar Shah.

Bill Nussey:

If you’ve missed him recently, it’s because he is now heading up the Department of Energy’s Loan Program Office. He’s missed in the podcast world, but I can only imagine how much better off the industry is for having him in this role.

Garrett Nilsen:

Yeah, we’re extremely lucky to have Jigar in the house. He brings a wealth of knowledge across the clean energy space. So, under his guidance, we hope to see a lot of really innovative projects funded here in the U.S. to really help accelerate the administration’s mission of decarbonizing the electric sector by 2035. We’re going to need any and all resources available. We certainly see the government as being a large part of that mission

Speaker 1:

At President Biden’s Leader Summit on climate not too many weeks ago, U.S. Secretary of Energy Jennifer Granholm raised the bar on ambitions for climate action. In her remarks, she said, “By the end of this decade, we need renewables deployed at scale, so that reliable, affordable, clean energy reaches people in the most populated valleys. On the remotest mountains, across the hottest deserts and coldest Tundra.”

Speaker 1:

Granholm reminded the gathering that a goal to cut the price of solar in half yet again, has been set for 2030. She added that, next, we’ll start lowering the cost of clean, renewable hydrogen by 80% before 2030. Making it competitive with natural gas and importantly, she set a goal to slash battery cell prices in half, again.

Speaker 1:

Granholm called for fearless innovation to bring down the cost of batteries, to commercialize carbon capture and to make blue and green hydrogen market-ready. If you’re skeptical that this is achievable and that the DOE can play a role in achieving it, you only have to look back at 2011, when the DOE announced The SunShot Initiative.

Speaker 1:

They boldly set the goal of lowering the price of solar 75%, down to 6 cents-per-kilowatt-hour by 2020. Not only did they achieve it, they did it three years ahead of schedule. In those summit remarks, Granholm reminded us about the size of the opportunity at stake in the transition to clean energy.

Speaker 1:

She said, “We’re looking at a $23 trillion global market in the clean energy transition by 2030.” 23 trillion at a minimum. The Department of Energy has labeled these new initiatives The Energy EarthShots. Granholm noted that these are an all-hands-on-deck call for innovation, collaboration and acceleration of our clean energy economy, by tackling the toughest remaining barriers to quickly deploy emerging clean energy technologies at scale.

Speaker 1:

Right on the heels of our interview with Deputy Secretary Garrett Nilsen, the U.S. Department of Energy announced $200 million in funding over the next five years for electric vehicles, batteries and connected vehicle projects at DOE National Labs. New DOE partnerships to support electric vehicles innovation.

Speaker 1:

The time is right for innovators to step forward and become a part of one of the greatest opportunities in modern history. Want to see if there’s a DOE program that could support your ideas? We’ve included convenient links in this episode’s show notes that can help guide you on your journey. Now, let’s rejoin Bill and Garrett for some more amazing insights into how the DOE is supporting the shift to clean, local energy.

Garrett Nilsen:

We’ve watched another track inside of our American-made solar prizes for software specifically. So, what’s really exciting here is software has been a really powerful element, in terms of moving the solar industry to where it is today. We want to see the software solutions come and try to tackle even more problems. Particularly in really sticky places like solar soft costs.

Garrett Nilsen:

Solar soft costs or non-hardware costs. Think of the cost of anything you can’t nail down or hold in your hand, which can, for residential systems, add up to 70% of the cost of the system can come from these non-source softwares. We’re really interested in that.

Garrett Nilsen:

On top of that, in alignment with administration goal, is really trying to look at the equity and deployment and deployment and usage of solar. We’ve added some JEDI topic areas. JEDI is our fancy way of saying justice, diversity, equity and inclusion. We’ll kind of have some bonus prizes, on top of the regular technology prizes, for solutions that really focus on helping underserved communities access the benefits of solar energy.

Garrett Nilsen:

We’re really, really excited to see not only what America’s innovators can do in terms of developing products, but also really looking at different communities and how we can bring solutions to bear for them. So that they can be part of this clean energy transition and benefit. The benefits can reach all Americans.

Bill Nussey:

Tell us a little bit about some of the companies that have benefited from these programs, that maybe some of our listeners have heard about or would be interested to learn more about.

Garrett Nilsen:

A couple small businesses that have been really interesting to see come out. One was called NovaLite. This group created a silicon ink that could be deposited on solar cells during processing, to increase performance. They were ultimately purchased by DuPont in 2011. That’s one end of the spectrum, the solar cell development one of the spectrum.

Garrett Nilsen:

Another different end of the spectrum is a group called GridUnity. They were basically looking at, how do you improve it in our connection studies? Before especially large utility cell systems get connected to the grid, the utility has to do a study, to make sure they can maintain grid performance with that new asset.

Garrett Nilsen:

So, this is something that can take very complex modeling platforms, people with PhDs to run. GridUnity has managed to develop an interconnection study. A platform that can help with these interconnection studies that can dramatically decrease that amount of time.

Garrett Nilsen:

Hopefully speed money or speed projects onto the grid, which is mobilizing money and mobilizing your workforce. This is really exciting to see many multiple utilities across the U.S. adopt their platform for their usage.

Garrett Nilsen:

The group that some folks may have heard of is Mosaic. They originally started as a crowdfunding platform and eventually moved into the loan product space. Solar Energy Technologies Office was involved with both of those kinds of efforts, very early on. Now, they are a large and growing player in the solar loan area.

Garrett Nilsen:

We also want some kind of stuff that you wouldn’t necessarily associate with solar, out of the gate. One is by a group called ConnectDER. ConnectDER, they developed this really clever way of putting, essentially, it looks like a collar on your electric meters. They pop the glass part off, put a collar on it, pop the glass part back on. There’s two plugs on it.

Garrett Nilsen:

What’s really interesting about that is, one, it allows people to install a PV system without having to go into someone’s house. Which you can imagine, is great, given everything that’s been going on with COVID. Two, it also opens up different business models. Where, depending on which plug you use, the system is either both in front of, or behind you electric meter.

Garrett Nilsen:

So, if it’s behind the electric meter, this is something that lowers the load and that maybe the homeowner owns. If it’s in front of the meter, it actually opens up the ability for utilities to own residential systems. In some parts of the U.S., leveraging this kind of device, utilities might rent someone’s rooftop and actually pay and deploy the PV system on top of that. So, it opens up some new business models and more diverse ways to deploy solar. Which is really interesting.

Bill Nussey:

The new administration is calling for some big actions. What role do you guys in the Department of Energy play in this grand revision, where so many of us are excited to hear?

Garrett Nilsen:

Yeah, absolutely. This administration definitely has some ambitious goals. The DOE and specifically the Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy arm, which we’re a part of, I think we’re going to be an integral part to effect of these missions. In terms of our end of the Department of Energy, the big priorities we’re seeing is, of course, decarbonizing the power sector by 2035.

Garrett Nilsen:

Decarbonizing transportation across all modes of transportation. Decarbonizing energy-intensive and high greenhouse gas-emitting industries, which will certainly be no short order. Reducing the carbon footprint of buildings, enabling a net-zero agricultural sector. Of course, across all of that, ensuring that we’ve a well-trained workforce and that we’re focused on issues like diversity, inclusion and equity across everything that we do.

Garrett Nilsen:

Today, we’re working to align our current programming with all those priorities that are at least always relevant to us. Engaging in some areas that you might not think. Our office actually does research in the area of dual land use of solar and agriculture-

Bill Nussey:

Love that.

Garrett Nilsen:

Which is something that people might not think of. So, there’s a lot of different ways that we’re in. We’re even thinking about how we can use concentrating solar thermal power to decarbonize energy-intensive greenhouse gas industry. Say like cement or chemical processing. But, looking to the future, I really encourage your audience to read our latest multi-year program plan.

Garrett Nilsen:

This can be found on our website. It was published just a month or so ago, and it covers the next five years for our office. What are our actual quantitative goals around what we want to see in the industry the next five years? What are kind of the tools that we’re going to bring to bear to try to address these?

Garrett Nilsen:

I can certainly provide a link for you to share on the website, but you can, of course, go to our websites, if you Google the Solar Energy Technologies Office and DOE, it’ll take you to our website and you’ll be able to find our multi-year program plan. That, again, lays out, in more detail than we have time to go in here, how we’re aligning the mission of our office with the mission of the administration.

Bill Nussey:

That sounds like a must-read. Thanks. We’ll definitely post that in the show notes. I don’t let anybody get through our podcast interviews without bringing up one of my favorite topics, which is batteries. I think somebody I talked to last year decided I was Battery Bill.

Bill Nussey:

I think batteries are integral part of this. I’d love to get your thoughts on, what is it when you, as a representative of the Department of Energy, think about storage, what are you seeing? What excites you? What can we expect? That kind of thing.

Garrett Nilsen:

That’s a great question, Bill. Obviously, storage is going to be integral to how we integrate all of these assets with the electric grid. How we ultimately run our economy of the future. So, to coordinate our work, the DOE launched, last year, what’s called our Energy Storage Grand Challenge.

Garrett Nilsen:

There’s a number of different offices, including of ours, looking at both developing technologies and figuring out how we integrate with storage technologies. Our office, personally, focuses on the integration of solar, with storage and other assets. We leave the chemistry to other sections of the Department of Energy, but ultimately, the DOE is looking holistically at it.

Garrett Nilsen:

It’s not just a technology developments play. It’s also technology commercialization, supply chains and manufacturing. How do you value all of this in the marketplaces of the future? How do we think about workforce training and things like that?

Garrett Nilsen:

One area that I’m particularly interested in, is some work that our office recently funded for our fiscal year 2020 funding opportunity. We funded some work into the demonstration of hybrid energy systems that will be able to provide grid services and energy to the grid, to ensure grid reliability and grid resilience.

Garrett Nilsen:

Two projects that are of particular interest is one that is using a real-world hydropower facility in Michigan. A real-world PV plant and a real-world electric storage battery. They’re going to look at how you operate all three of those assets, in concert, to be able to provide reliable and resilient power to the local grid area.

Garrett Nilsen:

Then, from my understanding, is the first time we’ve actually, well, we will have shown how these three assets can work with one another, to provide these kinds of services.

Garrett Nilsen:

Also, we’re running a project in Hawaii, working with HECO, the Hawaiian Electric Company, where we’re going to be using real-life solar plus storage assets. On islands, where there are actually high penetrations of other renewables, such as wind. Showing how solar plus storage can work on those electric grids to firm up and make sure that the grids are working reliably and resiliently.

Bill Nussey:

Batteries are where software becomes absolutely essential. You can operate the grid by planning for it very well, in some software. Solar, generally the same way, but when you put batteries into the equation, you have to have very complicated battery-based, software-based operating systems. For software nuts, this is, batteries are going to give us a chance to play on a much wider field in the electricity industry than we have.

Garrett Nilsen:

And I would add, too, that, in order to be able to run the software and run the calculations you need, there’s also just the communications and sensor infrastructure. Which is going to be massively needed across the U.S. and an area that our office is also investing in.

Garrett Nilsen:

It’s one thing to be able to operate it correctly, it’s another thing to know everything that’s going on in the grid. So that you then can [inaudible 00:26:34] out how to get an operate stuff as well. It’s a really, really exciting space.

Bill Nussey:

Just one more nerdy point, is that electricity is continuous and real-time. It doesn’t slice what the database people call atomic transactions. So, you can choose to look at electricity every five minutes, or you can choose to look at it every minute or every second. But, electricity, as far as this is concerned, it’s infinite.

Bill Nussey:

So, part of the challenge is to really manage it closely. You need to start managing it at time cycles that are really short. That push even modern computing capabilities. This isn’t just another computer problem, this is a cutting-edge computer problem. It’s fun stuff for the nerds and the entrepreneurs. I just wanted to mention it.

Bill Nussey:

For a lot of folks who are interested in learning more about how government funding. By the way, I don’t want to just narrow this to funding, the government has a tremendous amount of resources beyond money, to bring to entrepreneurs. But, focusing on money, because that’s going to get everyone’s attention immediately. How do you, Garrett, suggest that an entrepreneur who’s thinking that maybe they should explore government funding of some kind, how do they start?

Garrett Nilsen:

Yeah, sure. That’s a really great question. First is obviously being aware of what is available. One thing I mentioned earlier, for our funding opportunity announcements, I encourage folks to go take EERE Exchange. You can Google that and it will take you to the appropriate website. That’s where we focus our large competitive funding opportunities.

Garrett Nilsen:

We post all of our prizes to website called americanmadechallenges.org. There, you can find all of the prizes that are coming out from across Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy. Of course, you can Google the SBIR, Small Business Innovation Research program and Technology Commercialization Fund to learn a little bit more about those.

Garrett Nilsen:

If you’re interested specifically in solar, then I highly, highly recommend that you go to our website and sign up for our newsletter. You Google the Solar Energy Technologies Office, DOE. You’ll find it. Right at the top, we have a place where you can sign up for our newsletter, where we announce and blast out every time that we have funding available. That’s definitely the best place to keep your finger on the pulse of what we’re up to.

Garrett Nilsen:

In terms of engaging with programming or entities that we fund more broadly, I know National Labs can kind of seem like an impenetrable monolith. We certainly encourage you to reach out to staff. There is contract information available. They’re always interested to learn what people might be thinking about in the private sector. They want to share kind of what the DOE and the taxpayer has been funding.

Garrett Nilsen:

National Labs are a great resource. It can be a little intimidating, but just start by reaching out. Or, if you’re at an event where we’re in person at conferences and all the rest. Again, if you see someone, chat with them and figure out how you might be able to engage,

Bill Nussey:

Just to put this in language for those of us that live outside the government funding world, when you’re thinking about applying for solar prize, you’re looking at a couple thousand words, I think? It’s a submission paper and a short video, but it’s like it might be a midterm college exam or a paper. It’s nothing too extraneous. This is the easiest way. This is the step stepping stone of the on ramp to the bigger government funding.

Bill Nussey:

When you get into some of the other programs, there is some bureaucracy with it. It’s a little difficult to navigate, but the cool thing is that there’s tons of people. Both private firms you can hire and the government itself has lots of training. Navigating these websites, don’t be intimidated too quickly.

Bill Nussey:

If it does look interesting. And, what Garrett was describing is, the DOE is looking for certain themes to fund with some of their programs. So, if you have a startup or have an idea that matches with some of their themes, that’s when you get engaged. If you think that you want to make a better way to make lawn chairs, you don’t see that in any of their funding announcements, then you probably aren’t going to get funded by those programs. Garrett makes the point, everybody says, “Read what we’re saying and follow the instructions.”

Bill Nussey:

I want to hammer on, if you want one piece of advice for how to “crack the code” with air quotes, it’s just read and follow the instructions. We are the government, we have pretty rigid rules and so, if people don’t follow the instructions given, we’re limited in terms of our ability to review things. I know some people think they’re being creative by doing something slightly off the book, but just, please, follow the instructions. I can’t emphasize that enough.

Bill Nussey:

That’s what worked when I applied years ago to get SBIR programming. That’s what I’ve seen work since I’ve been here. I would definitely stress for everyone else to do that as well. Just pay close attention to that. Then, from there, you’ll be, obviously, reviewed on the merits of your technology, your team and so forth.

Bill Nussey:

Listen, let’s jump to the final part of our podcast. It’s the marquee part of the Freeing Energy discussions. We ask our lightning questions of all our esteemed guests. Are you ready, Garrett?

Garrett Nilsen:

Yeah, let’s do it.

Bill Nussey:

All right. Share something with our listeners that you think non-industry folks would find most surprising about the work that you’re doing in this new world of energy.

Garrett Nilsen:

I think it’s really the scope of the work the Department of Energy engages in. What you’ve heard from me today is a very small portion of what we do. We engage on topics that I was even surprised about. Solar plus agriculture, water desalination. Then, anything you could think of related to electricity generation and the electric [inaudible 00:31:41] The scope is still something that blows my mind, even to this day. I have been here almost 10 years.

Bill Nussey:

All right. Second question. If you could wave a magic wand and see one thing changed on the transition to clean, renewable energy, what would it be?

Garrett Nilsen:

If I could wave a magic wand, I think it would be really just having the populace in the U.S. really understand what is happening. I think one thing that’s a real challenge in the clean energy space is you don’t see a change to the electricity coming out of your plug. But, massive changes are taking place. I think there are ways to kind of educate the, just, general populus to understand the size of the transition that’s happening.

Garrett Nilsen:

The work that’s going on behind it by the federal government and others. The economic opportunity to include jobs and just economic growth in the U.S. I think that’s the one thing I would love to be able to see, is for people to understand that, in its totality, which is pretty massive when you talk about industries which are trillions of dollars in size.

Bill Nussey:

There’s an old saying that it’s as hard as changing the tires on the bus while it’s driving down the road. I think the transition to clean energy is changing the tires, changing the engine, painting it and everything else, while it’s driving down the road.

Bill Nussey:

It doesn’t even hit a bump, the folks that are managing that. While it’s going much more slowly than many of us want, it is definitely moving. All right, third question. What do you think will be the most important change in how we generate, store and distribute electricity in the next five years?

Garrett Nilsen:

I think it’s just the increasingly distributed nature of energy generation. We’re moving away from the hub-and spoke model and we’re having energy generation, particularly in solar and places that you never thought of energy being developed before. This is going to lead to a place where we can have, hopefully, even more reliable and more resilient electric grids in the future.

Bill Nussey:

I spent the last many years completely focused on local energy and you just gave us a huge endorsement. So, thank you. You heard that from Garrett Nilsen. Local energy, man. I’m calling it local energy, most people call it distributed energy resources, but this is, I think, one of the biggest changes happening in the industry.

Garrett Nilsen:

Yeah, and this is, again, as I mentioned, from those bus, those car rides from Connecticut and New Jersey, with seeing all those rooftops and thinking about how it can use them. That’s the exact kind of place that distributed energy can potentially thrive-

Bill Nussey:

Absolutely.

Garrett Nilsen:

Local energy indeed.

Bill Nussey:

Love to hear that, brother. Thank you. All right. Final question. I get a lot of questions, I’m sure you do too, from folks who want to get into the industry. A lot of our listeners are folks that think, “I don’t know about this. Should I take a risk on my career and think about jumping into this industry?” When people ask you, “What can I do to get involved?” What do you tell them?

Garrett Nilsen:

I think the biggest thing is getting informed, staying informed and really sharing what you’ve learned. As I mentioned, that there’s a lot of information out there and things are rapidly changing. The more we can do to keep each other up to date on what the opportunities are and how we see things changing, the better off we’ll be.

Garrett Nilsen:

Also, make sure you’re using reputable sources. There’s a lot of misinformation out there and we want to make sure that people are making the best decisions for themselves, for their families. For their communities, as this energy transition takes place.

Bill Nussey:

I think that’s a great answer. I have to say that that has been my mission with the Freeing Energy project. We don’t take advertisers, we make no money on this. I’ve got a book coming out. It’s a largely not-for-profit effort. I think there’s a lot of misinformation and a lot of misunderstanding.

Bill Nussey:

Some of it’s intentional, some of it’s just genuinely misunderstood, but I think, as people start to realize the potential that’s here for the transition, for individuals and startups to play a role, just understanding what the U.S. government can do to help them is extraordinary. As this goes from being a few crazy pioneers that are thinking about it, to common knowledge, I think the transition to clean energy is going to pick up even more speed.

Bill Nussey:

I’m so excited to have met you and to have you share your stories today, Garrett. Because what you and your colleagues in Washington and across the United States are doing just doesn’t get enough attention. It’s a much more formative and powerful impact than a lot of people realize. On behalf of all of us, thank you very much for all the work you’re doing.

Garrett Nilsen:

Absolutely. Thank you, Bill, for inviting me and thank you to everyone who’s listening for your interest in this space. We’re really excited to see you and what the rest of our country’s going to be able to do in the years and decades to come. It’s certainly an exciting time to be in the energy space.

Speaker 1:

Thank you for joining us today. You have been listening to the Freeing Energy podcast, personal stories from the clean energy movement. To learn more about the Freeing Energy project, visit our website, freeingenergy.com. Subscribe to the Freeing Energy Podcast on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Google Podcasts and anywhere podcasts are found. Make sure more people learn about clean, local energy by rating and reviewing the show on Apple Podcasts.

POST'S CATEGORIES

RELATED POSTS

Leave a Reply

SUBSCRIBE

TOPICS

RECENT POSTS