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October 06, 2022 | Tom Ballard

Business opportunities are very robust as attendees at ETEBA’s conference learned this week

By Tom Ballard, Chief Alliance Officer, PYA

The tagline for the Energy, Technology and Environmental Business Association (ETEBA) is “Linking businesses with opportunities,” and that commitment was on full display this week when the member-based organization held its 23rd annual “Business Opportunities and Technical Conference” in Knoxville.

About 500 individuals pre-registered for the event held at the Knoxville Convention Center where they heard from national and local speakers who focused specifically on opportunities for both large firms and small businesses. We thought Cortney Piper, Executive Director of the Tennessee Advanced Energy Business Council, captured the theme very well in her Wednesday morning discussion when she said, “We are building a cleantech hub here.”

That is clearly the opportunity, leveraging great technology assets and the region’s robust businesses – from small, start-ups to well-established companies – to continue to grow the economic base while simultaneously addressing national challenges. Over the course of the balance of Wednesday and Thursday, more details about many of those opportunities emerged.

For example, William “Ike” White, Senior Advisor in the Office of Environmental Management (EM) at the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), used his keynote address on Wednesday morning to talk about “the enormous progress the country” has made at the various clean-up sites and the fact that “small businesses are helping us address some of our most challenging problems.” He noted that about 20 percent of the $2 billion EM budget is spent with small businesses.

Immediately following White on the dais was Kelly Cummins (pictured right), Deputy Director of DOE’s new Office of Clean Energy Demonstrations (OCED). Established last December as part of the “Bipartisan Infrastructure Law” that Congress approved, and the President signed, we walked away from the session convinced that OCED appears to house some of the most significant program opportunities for energy-focused businesses, both those well-established and those just getting started. The latter group includes companies participating in the “Innovation Crossroads” program operated by Oak Ridge National Laboratory, the “Spark Cleantech Accelerator” at the University of Tennessee Research Park, and possibly those that will be attracted to Cohort 2 of the “Techstars Industries of the Future Accelerator.”

Cummins told attendees that OCED’s mission is to commercialize clean energy technologies. “We are to deliver clean energy projects at scale in partnership with the private sector,” she said, explaining that means scaling down risks while being catalytic. The latter was a reference to projects where DOE can invest $1 that ideally will leverage as much as $100 in follow-on private capital.

The longtime DOE administrator spent much of her time focused on the various programs for which OCED has leadership responsibility, starting with the $8 billion Regional Clean Hydrogen Hubs. Referred to as H2Hubs, most of the funding – $7 billion to be exact – will go to establishing six to 10 regional clean hydrogen hubs across America. It is designed to be a central driver in helping communities across the country benefit from clean energy investments, good-paying jobs and improved energy security.

Another area – the Advanced Reactor Demonstration Program (ARDP) – received an additional $2.5 billion, and groundbreaking for one of its two demonstration projects – TRISO-X TF3 Commercial Fuel Fabrication Facility – will occur next week at the Horizon Center in Oak Ridge.

Other areas under OCED’s purview and funding for each are:

“There’s a lot of synergy between what we are trying to do in the Clean Energy Demonstration’s Office and what I’ve seen in the region (here) in the past 10 years,” Cummins said.

Thursday morning saw a continuation of the “opportunities” theme with a panel specifically focused on East Tennessee including many of those close to Oak Ridge.

  • Carol Barajas, TVA’s newly named Vice President for Nuclear Projects and Subsequent License Renewal, noted the nation’s largest public utility has committed to about $2 billion in nuclear-related projects over the next five years that will extend the life of existing plants.
  • Lou Martinez Sancho, Vice President for Strategy and Innovation at Kairos Power, talked about the role that the company will play in fighting climate change. As noted in previous biz articles, the five and one-half year old start-up is investing $100 million and creating 55 jobs at the East Tennessee Technology Park as part of a major effort to deploy a low-power demonstration reactor. “We are growing fast,” Sancho said with employment now topping 300.
  • Gary Bell, Director of Facility Design and Integration for TRISO-X, explained that the company is a wholly-owned subsidiary of X-energy. The facility that will host next week’s groundbreaking ceremony will have two production lines eventually, and the first line will employ about 400 people when it opens at the end of 2025. “We are looking down the road to make sure we have an appropriate set of partners to be successful,” Bell said.
  • Joe Shea Sr., Senior Technical Advisor for TVA’s Clinch River Project, outlined the three-step “Decision Gate” process the public utility is using as it evaluates the viability of small modular reactors (SMRs) across its seven-state region, starting with the 1,200-acre Clinch River site. “One thing we are looking at is building a supply chain strategy,” Shea said, noting that it would be important for any site where TVA might deploy an SMR.

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