Switchgrass Initiative, Model for New Solar Plan, Now Runs on DOE Funds

The solar research initiative Governor Bredesen proposed last week is modeled after another alternative energy project in Tennessee: the biofuel program launched two years ago.

After a significant initial investment by the state, that program has secured ongoing federal funding. Two years ago the state invested some $70 million to work on turning switchgrass into ethanol.

Part of that money went to attracting researchers and business partners for the University of Tennessee and Oak Ridge National Laboratory.

ORNL director Thom Mason says the early state funding helped the program win grants from the Department of Energy, totaling around $200 million through 2012.

Mason says the state hopes to replicate that success with the proposed solar initiative.

“What we’ve really I think demonstrated with the biofuels initiative is we can make a much more compelling proposal that will attract that funding if we’ve got a real jump start from the state funds.”

The state is looking to spend roughly $60 million from the federal stimulus on the solar project, with about half of that again going to UT and ORNL.


Several components comprise the Tennessee Biofuels Initiative:

– The Agricultural Extension Program, which gathered farmers to plant switchgrass.
– A pilot-scale biorefinery being constructed in Vonore, built in partnership with DuPont-Danesco, to demonstrate the technology.
– The Bioenergy Science Center, housed at the state-funded Joint Institute for Biological Sciences at ORNL.

ORNL Director Thom Mason:

“The combination of having a facility with JIBS and the private-sector biorefinery partner, and also the ability to develop some biomass feedstock through the agricultural extension program, when the Department of Energy’s Office of Science announced a competition to develop what they called “Bioenergy Research Centers,” we were able to put together a very strong proposal leveraging the state investment and the University of Tennessee partnership with some other partners.”

Mason says those partners included other universities like the University of Georgia, the National Renewable Energy Lab in Colorado, and private-sector partners like Mascoma, a biotech startup active in biofuels.

Mason says the competition was intense.

“After the first round there were about 20 proposals that were competing for three bioenergy research centers. And fortunately ours was one of the successful ones – that’s a $135 million program over five years.”

The Department of Energy also provides an additional $10 million a year through its biomass program. Mason says the program hopes to extend its DOE funding beyond 2012.

Private partners are footing roughly half the bill for the pilot biorefinery, paying $40 million.

Eighteen months into the program, Mason says it’s already yielded 14 invention disclosures, with one already licensed.

Solar Initiative

In addition to the research institute at UT and ORNL, the initiative includes some $30 million to start a solar farm in West Tennessee. Governor Bredesen hopes it will demonstrate the state’s drive for renewable energy. Profits yielded from the power it generates will be used to expand the solar array.

ORNL Director Thom Mason says the problem of solar is one of materials, in two ways: First, solar panels are simply too expensive, necessitating cheaper cell technology. Second, because solar energy is intermittent, advanced battery technology will be key to efficient storage.

The state is awaiting DOE approval to begin spending the federal stimulus dollars.

Daniel Potter

Daniel Potter thinks the term 'general assignment' is a bland way to say he's brought back national reports from places like inside a man-made cave built to save endangered bats, a room where police store confiscated meth labs, and from the Grand Ole Opry while hundreds of evacuated hotel guests snoozed in the pews. A native of upstate Alabama, Dan enjoys rock-climbing and vegetarian dining.
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