Renewable energy opportunities

Biofuels, hydrogen and fuel cells, solar, wave energy, wind, advanced vehicles and others offer opportunities for applications of automation, controls, and instrumentation.

By Mark T. Hoske November 2, 2017

Renewable energy and energy efficiency are among industries where automation, controls, and instrumentation are being applied. These include biofuels, hydrogen and fuel cells, solar, wave energy, wind, and advanced vehicles and others supported by U.S. Dept. of Energy (DOE).

Technologies needed for these applications fill and connect the control loop (sense, decide, actuate), such as sensors, logic devices (rugged or industrial computers, programmable logic controllers, industrial PCs, programmable automation controllers, board-level computing), and actuators (motors, pumps, fans, blowers). Connecting and enabling technologies include networking technologies (including wireless and Ethernet), human-machine interface, data acquisition, analytics and other embedded, local, and cloud-based software applications.

Below, recent DOE awards and announcements are summarized. 


Eight projects were selected to negotiate for up to $15 million in total DOE funding to optimize integrated biorefineries. These projects will work to solve critical research and developmental challenges encountered for the successful scale-up and reliable operations of integrated biorefineries (IBRs), decrease capital and operating expenses, and focus on the manufacture of advanced or cellulosic biofuels and higher-value bioproducts. These investments support the development of bioproducts, a workforce in bioenergy, and help to spur the creation of a sustainable domestic bioeconomy. Sept. 20 Four additional projects were selected through the Productivity Enhanced Algae and ToolKits funding opportunity to receive up to $8.8 million. The awardees—the Colorado School of Mines, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, the University of Toledo, and the University of California, San Diego—will develop high-impact tools and techniques to increase the productivity of algae organisms to reduce the costs of producing algal biofuels and bioproducts. Sept. 8

A fourth project with up to $1.8 million will be funded under the "Mega-Bio: Bioproducts To Enable Biofuels Funding Opportunity." In August 2016, DOE’s Bioenergy Technologies Office selected three projects for an initial round of funding. Total funding for the four Mega-Bio awards is $13.1 million. The four projects support the development of biomass-to-hydrocarbon biofuels conversion pathways that can produce variable amounts of fuels and/or products based on external factors, such as market demand. Under this fourth award, Michigan State University, in partnership with the University of Wisconsin-Madison and MBI International, will work to optimize a two-stage alkaline-oxidative deconstruction approach to generating a clean sugar stream for producing hydrocarbon fuels and lignins that can feed multiple product streams and enable the economic viability of this integrated processing approach. Producing high-value bioproducts alongside cost-competitive biofuels gives a biorefinery the potential to support a positive return on investment. Aug. 2

Three projects were selected to receive up to $8 million, aimed at reducing the costs of producing algal biofuels and bioproducts. These projects will deliver high-impact tools and techniques for increasing the productivity of algae organisms and cultures. They also will deliver biology-focused breakthroughs while enabling accelerated future innovations through data sharing within the research and development community. This funding supports the development of a bioeconomy that can help create jobs, spur innovation, improve the quality of life, and achieve national energy security. July 11

Clean energy

In honor of Hydrogen and Fuel Cell Day, the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) Fuel Cell Technologies Office (FCTO) and the U.S. Army’s Tank Automotive Research Development and Engineering Center (TARDEC) announced plans to collaborate on jointly funded projects to advance progress in hydrogen and fuel cell technologies. Oct. 4

DOE announced $8.7 million for 58 grants to small businesses in 22 states to develop clean energy technologies with a strong potential for commercialization and job creation. These clean energy projects—among a total of 263 grants DOE-wide—help small businesses with promising ideas that could improve manufacturing processes, boost building efficiency, increase transportation sustainability, and generate more electricity from renewable sources. June 26

Nearly $32 million in DOE funding for small business-led projects are expected to further develop clean energy technologies that have a strong potential for commercialization and job creation. These 32 awards will help small businesses advance their promising concepts that improve manufacturing processes, boost the efficiency of buildings, increase transportation sustainability, and generate electricity from renewable sources. June 21

Fuel cells

The 2017 Fuel Cell Technologies Market Report positions stationary power, backup power, and material handling equipment as some of the largest markets, and transportation and energy storage as emerging sectors for hydrogen and fuel cells. With approximately 62,000 fuel cells and 500 MW in fuel cell power shipped worldwide in 2016, this represents more than double the capacity of shipments in megawatts compared to 2014. The largest growth in capacity—nearly triple—occurred in the transportation sector, and that growth can be attributed to the introduction and expansion of fuel cell light-duty vehicles from Japan and Korea to new regions around the world, including in the United States. Industry revenues in the emerging fuel cell industry topped $1.6 billion in 2016 alone. Oct. 13

In honor of Hydrogen and Fuel Cell Day, DOE’s FCTO and Japan’s New Energy and Industrial Technology Development Organization (NEDO) announced a collaboration on hydrogen and fuel cell safety research and development (R&D) data sharing to accelerate progress in hydrogen technology with mutual goals of energy security, resilience, and economic growth. DOE and NEDO will collaborate to collect and share data regarding early-stage R&D and safety of hydrogen and fuel cells, including data from hydrogen fueling stations and fundamental hydrogen research safety. The United States and Japan will work to apply that data for guiding future research and enabling the safe deployment of fuel cells and hydrogen infrastructure technologies. In addition, FTCO and NEDO plan to hold a joint workshop on hydrogen in the coming months. Oct. 10

Events on Hydrogen and Fuel Cell Day (Oct. 8 to represent the atomic weight of hydrogen, 1.008) assemble industry, academia, national labs, government, and other stakeholders to increase awareness of hydrogen and fuel cell technologies. Ride-and-drives events are among activities expected in this third year of recognition. Oct. 2

DOE and U.S. National Labs announced a request for proposals for research projects that address the Hydrogen at Scale (H2@Scale) concept, which enables wide-scale production and use of hydrogen to address critical issues such as grid resiliency, energy storage and security, domestic job creation, and domestic leadership in innovation. Aug. 18

Fuel cells can be scaled to meet many different energy conversion or power needs. From primary stationary power and combined heat and power applications to powering cell phones and laptops, fuel cells are proving to be a versatile technology. New technologies are emerging. Aug. 16

Approximately $15.8 million in DOE funding for 30 new projects is aimed at the discovery and development of novel, low-cost materials necessary for hydrogen production and storage and for fuel cells onboard light-duty vehicles. Selected projects will leverage national lab consortia launched under DOE’s Energy Materials Network (EMN) this past year, in support of DOE’s materials research and advanced manufacturing priorities. June 9 

Computing, power grid

The key focus of the Advanced Manufacturing Office (AMO) is to work with public- and private-sector partners to advance scientific innovations to overcome difficult manufacturing challenges and transition processes, materials, and information technologies into new manufacturing capabilities. Early-stage R&D is crucial, especially to small- and medium-sized companies who struggle between the idea and commercialization phases. The technical knowledge gained in early-stage R&D can have an impact through cross-cutting, platform technologies relevant to manufacturing in multiple energy fields. While new knowledge discoveries initially may help answer questions relevant to a specific challenge, the new knowledge also can be applied and shared through other technical partnerships. Projects include (part of a Manufacturing Day 2017, Oct. 6 announcement):

  • High Performance Computing for Steel Manufacturing – Researchers at U.S. national labs are working with industry partners to apply high performance computing (HPC) to answer foundational scientific questions about complex gas flow, combustion, and chemical reactions that can be applied to the steel industry.
  • Modular Chemical Process Intensification – The Rapid Advancement in Process Intensification Deployment (RAPID) Manufacturing Institute brings together companies, academic institutions, national laboratories, and non-governmental organizations from all regions of the U.S. to focus on exploring breakthrough technologies that maximize processes at the molecular level to save energy with every chemical reaction, as well as open up the use of new and abundant domestic energy resources in the U.S. economy.
  • Membrane Systems for Used Oil Re-refining – Through the Small Business Innovation Research program, a team at Media and Process Technology Inc. is developing innovative ceramic membranes by studying basic principles of thermal and chemical stability. These membranes can be used to recycle and re-refine waste oil.

A new high-performance computing (HPC) initiative from DOE aims to help U.S. industry accelerate the development of new or improved materials for use in severe environments. Sept. 19

During the week of Sept. 11, DOE announced up to $32 million for seven Resilient Distribution Systems projects, which will support early stage research and development of next-generation tools and technologies that will further improve the resilience of the nation’s electric grid. This is the second round of funding under the Grid Modernization Initiative, a DOE-wide collaboration primarily supported by the Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy (EERE) and the Office of Electricity Delivery and Energy Reliability. Sept. 15 


Solar Decathlon in Denver: The international competition where college students showcase their energy-efficient, innovative solar houses and develop the skills and knowledge to become the next generation of energy experts. Oct. 10

DOE announced $46.2 million for 48 projects as part of its SunShot Initiative. These projects are intended to develop innovative, early-stage solar power technologies, which are aimed at lowering costs and improving reliability and efficiency. July 12

Wave energy

DOE announced up to $12 million in new projects to support the development of innovative technologies capable of generating reliable and cost-effective electricity from U.S. water resources. The four projects will advance marine and hydrokinetic (MHK) energy technologies, which can harness energy from U.S. oceans and rivers. June 15 

Advanced vehicles

DOE announced up to $4 million for research projects on medium- and heavy-duty natural gas engine technologies. The DOE Vehicle Technologies Office (VTO) funds early-stage, high-risk research to generate knowledge upon which industry can develop and deploy innovative transportation energy technologies that improve efficiency, lower costs for families and businesses, and increase the use of secure, domestic energy sources. Oct. 11

DOE announced $19.4 million for 22 new cost-shared projects to accelerate the research of advanced battery systems, lightweight materials, engine technologies, and energy-efficient mobility systems. This VTO funding reasserts that investment in advanced, energy-efficient transportation technologies and systems will improve U.S. energy security, help consumers and businesses save money on transportation energy costs, and strengthen U.S. economic competitiveness. July 12


DOE released three wind market reports demonstrating continued growth in wind energy nationwide. America’s wind industry added more than 8,200 MW of capacity last year, representing 27% of all energy capacity additions in 2016. In 2016, wind supplied about 6% of U.S. electricity, and 14 states get more than 10% of electricity from wind. The reports cover land-based utility scale, offshore, and distributed wind markets. Aug. 8

Mark T. Hoske is content manager, CFE Media, Control Engineering, KEYWORDS: Renewable energy

  • U.S. Dept. of Energy is investing in renewable energy.
  • Automation, controls, and instrumentation are used in renewable energy.
  • Areas include biofuels, hydrogen and fuel cells, solar, wave energy, wind, and advanced vehicles.

Consider this

What new areas of renewable energy might provide opportunities or inspiration for your automation technologies?

ONLINE extra

This online version includes more information than would fit in print and links to other renewable coverage. Learn more at DOE’s Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy (EERE).

Author Bio: Mark Hoske has been Control Engineering editor/content manager since 1994 and in a leadership role since 1999, covering all major areas: control systems, networking and information systems, control equipment and energy, and system integration, everything that comprises or facilitates the control loop. He has been writing about technology since 1987, writing professionally since 1982, and has a Bachelor of Science in Journalism degree from UW-Madison.