The Washington Clean Energy Testbeds: An Open Access Facility for Accelerating the Translation of Discovery to Product

Tuesday, 3 October 2017: 11:55
Chesapeake G (Gaylord National Resort and Convention Center)
D. T. Schwartz (University of Washington)
There is growing interest in overcoming the barriers to clean energy innovation. The most visible call for accelerating the path from discovery to clean energy products was made at COP 21 in Paris, December 2015. “Mission Innovation” brought a pledge by 20 governments to double clean energy research funding in the next five years, and more than 20 of the world’s wealthiest individuals agreed to invest “patient capital” in the fruits of clean energy research. The investment group Breakthrough Energy Ventures, headed by Bill Gates, has now begun making its plans public, with an announced $1 billion fund with a 20 year duration.

Patient capital is surely one part of accelerating clean energy innovation. For example, a recent analysis of investment outcomes in cleantech shows that traditional 10 year venture funds have not made good returns, and this accounts for the lack of enthusiasm by investors in the cleantech sector[1]. By creating a 20 year fund, Breakthrough Energy Ventures is creating an investment vehicle more aligned with the traditional gestation period for bringing clean energy innovations to market.

Is access, cost, or structure of the capital the only (or even the main) challenge faced by clean energy start-ups? A 2016 DOE request for information (RFI) entitled, “Supporting Clean Energy Startups: Industry and Investment Partnerships for Scaling Innovation” (DE-FOA-0001669) sought public input on how the U.S. DOE could best facilitate a more efficient clean energy innovation ecosystem in the U.S.[2]. Some of the key findings were reported in the 2017 DOE funding opportunity announcement entitled “Innovative Pathways” (DE-FOA-0001703) [3]. The top three challenges to start-up success, reported by the respondents to the DOE RFI, were:

  1. Ability to test, validate, and demonstrate technologies
  2. Access, cost, and structure of capital
  3. Collaboration with industry partners and customers

Challenge #1 and #2 were almost equally cited by respondents, and it is worth noting that the RFI question emphasized non-capital challenges. Thus, it is fair to say concerns about access to capital are at the forefront of what start-ups worry about, but so is the ability to affordably test, validate, and demonstrate new technologies---the top non-capital-related barrier to innovation identified by DOE respondents.

The Washington Clean Energy Testbeds were designed to address Challenge #1. Through dozens of interviews in the Seattle and Bay Area, carried out by the author in 2014 and 2015, the Clean Energy Institute identified Challenge #1 as the main barrier to innovation that a university could address to accelerate clean energy innovation. The State of Washington and Washington Research Foundation funded the Testbed Facility in 2015, and we opened the 15,000 ft2 facility in February, 2017.

The facilities include state-of-the-art thin film coating and printing for prototyping and manufacturing scale-up of printed solar, batteries, and electronics. Testing of materials and devices are available in the lab, as is a system integration testbed that enables flexible hardware/software integration via real-time digital simulation and power-hardware-in-the-loop capabilities up to 40 kW in scale. All of the facilities leverage activities on campus and allow university staff and students to scale-up. But perhaps of greater importance, the facilities are open access, enabling any innovator to get trained and use the facilities as needed. This make our Testbed Staff expertise available to others, along with the hardware and software tools. The model is much akin to the academic clean room; unique facilities for capital-intensive prototyping and testing that support a community of users from inside and outside the university.

In this talk we will discuss the underlying data that drove the conception of the Washington Clean Energy Testbeds, and we will describe the facilities and programs we have built around them. Finally, we will talk about users interest and characteristics to date, and plans for the future.

[1] B. Gaddy, V. Sivaram, and F. O’Sullivan, “Venture Capital and Cleantech: The wrong model for clean energy innovation”. MIT Energy Initiative Working Paper, July, 2016 http://energy.mit.edu/publication/venture-capital-cleantech/ (accessed 4/17/17).

[2] https://eere-exchange.energy.gov/#FoaId28a462dc-327b-4950-8add-7e34b6fdf5df (accessed 4/17/2017)

[3] https://eere-exchange.energy.gov/Default.aspx?Search=innovative%20pathways&SearchType= (accessed 4/17/2017)