January 13, 2009
Energy in transition: researchers
talk about Obama and our future
With the Obama administration set to
take the reins at next week's inauguration, Energy Research News corresponded
with half a dozen researchers about Obama's appointments and energy
and science initiatives.
G. Bailey, senior physicist at NASA Glenn Research Center.
Bailey is an authority on photovoltaics.
Sørensen, professor of physics at Roskilde University in
Denmark. Sørensen is an authority on fuel cells and hydrogen
Karni, professor of mechanical engineering at the Weizmann
Institute of Science in Israel. Karni is an authority on concentrated
solar energy systems.
Grimes, professor of electrical engineering at Pennsylvania
State University. Grimess an authority on solar hydrogen generation.
T-Raissi, director, Advanced Energy Research Division, University
of Central Florida. T-Raissi is an authority on hydrogen energy.
Savadiogo, professor of chemical engineering at Polytechnique
Montréal in Canada. Savadiogo is an authority on electrochemistry.
The common threads:
||Obama's appointments are a promising first step
||We need to take a scientific approach to the energy
||We need to spend a lot of money and think carefully
about how we spend it
||The problem is too big to solve during any one
ERN: What's your view of Obama's appointments, particularly
Steven Chu for Secretary of Energy, Carol Browner for Assistant to
the President for Energy and Climate Change and John Holdren for President's
SB: I am pleased with the appointment of Dr. Chu particularly
because I believe he will take a scientist’s approach to the energy
problem and will be more likely to be inclusive of other agencies
BS: I think the appointments hold a lot of promise.
I have been sitting with Steven Chu in a working group recently and
have known John Holdren since my postdoc years in Berkeley (I am now
67) and hold them both in high esteem. I find it more difficult to
imagine that the US can change to an energy efficient and energy conscious
nation over the short time required. But I will hold my breath and
see how it goes...
JK: All of them have very impressive records, but in
very different roles than what would be required from them in their
new appointments. Translating their brilliance and vision to successful
long-term energy and environmental protection policies will depend
on many factors outside their control.
CG: A great start.
AT-R: President-elect Obama has so far impressed me
with his choices for the key appointees, particularly Steven Chu for
the Secretary of Energy, who is a renowned scientist and Noble laureate
in physics. Dr. Chu is keenly aware of the U.S. energy challenges
and has a favorable view of the importance of renewable energy technologies.
Same can be said of the appointment of Carol Browner for Assistant
to the President Elect for Energy and Climate Change.
John Holdren [is] a well-respected Harvard physicist and outspoken
critic of the Bush administration's science policy, and his views
on the earth’s climate change as a result of man-made greenhouse gases
is well in sync with that of the broader scientific community.
Even if the enormous economic and other challenges facing
the new President-elect distracts his attention and/or hinders his
full implementation of his energy related plans for the country, I
am at least comforted by knowing… that a competent President is going
to be at the helm, and one who has also surrounded himself with extraordinarily
competent and well-qualified advisers -- well fit to meet the country's
dire energy challenges.
OS: Obama's appointments on energy, climate change
and science advisor are historical choices in this particular era
of great challenges related to energy issues and climate changes.
ERN: What do you want and what do you expect from the Obama
administration in terms of energy research, and science and energy
policy in general?
SB: I’m hoping for a more focused effort on energy
research. I would like to see something more than just an increase
in the DOE budget.
I would like to see a collaboration of multiple agencies'
research efforts (NASA, DOD, DOE, etc.), universities, and industry
focused on solving our energy problems. Ideally the collaboration
would be funded separately from any agency and guided by a committee
of scientists from each of the agencies. NASA Glenn used to have a
substantial research effort in wind and terrestrial solar energy in
the late ‘70s and early ‘80s and much of that expertise remains.
In the end it will be determined by how much money will be
focused on the energy problems and how well it will be administered.
Finding the money with our current economic woes will be challenging
but critical to our future.
JK: The transition from fossil fuels to renewable resources
is a long and expensive but an absolutely vital process. We need a
long term (30 to 50 years), high-priority program using a substantial
part of the GNP and covering the entire scope – from fundamental research
to commercial installation strategy – to gradually replace the fossil
fuels we use for power generation, transportation and industrial thermal
The Obama administration must recognize this and set the foundation
to such a program despite knowing that its fruits may not be ripe
until long after Obama’s presidency is over. It must be done regardless
of the temptation to deal first with the immediate economic problems
and war on terror, and irrespective of the ill-advise of narrow minded
lobbies such as the nuclear industry, biofuels promoters and many
CG: Well, I am hopeful. Things cannot get much worse.
AT-R: I would like to see the federal government become
serious about energy efficiency and renewable energies, and completely
depoliticize the issue of global climate change, decoupling it from
U.S. industrial competitiveness concerns:
||Substitute good science in place of ideology and
||Work closely with the Congress to promote renewables
and move to internalize the external costs of fossil fuels production,
distribution and consumption.
||Advocate creation of the renewable energy industries
as the new engine of economic growth and job creation in the
U.S., in massive scale -- the new energy industry that is recession
proof and very hard to outsource (creating and keeping high
paying jobs in the U.S.). In that regard, resist the push by
the legacy energy companies in advocating old-style centralized
energy production (albeit renewable). Instead, promote distributed
energy production that is more robust and resistant to wide
spread blackouts and brownouts as well as immune to terrorist
||Invest in the development and use of zero-energy
homes, plug-in hybrid vehicles and closed-loop energy production
||Work closely with the Congress to substantially
reduce, if not completely eliminate, congressionally directed
(pork barrel) spending and entitlements in all areas especially
||Make basic and applied research in alternative
energy arena more equitable by allowing universities to become
more involved in long-term, high-risk high pay off R&D.
||Create an energy Manhattan Project with sufficient
resources and high-level competent management, e.g. energy DARPA.
OS: I expect they will be able to implement the policies
and promises in Obama's plan on New Energy for America. Key aspects
[are] clean energy, energy savings, and reduction of greenhouse gas
emission. I also expect these appointments will have some positive
impacts around the world on how appointments should be made on some
specific areas if we want to make changes and hope for the future.
ERN: What's your best case scenario for the administration's
science-related accomplishments by 2012?
SB: Much in the same way that we funded Apollo I hope
we have a concentrated effort to fund energy. Perhaps there should
be a tangible goal to attract public interest like landing men on
the moon. I’m not sure what that should be for energy but I do feel
the need is acute and meritorious. I hope the new administration is
up to the challenge.
JK: Implementation of long-term, sufficiently funded
energy and environmental protection policies, covering the entire
scope from fundamental research to commercial installation.
CG: They might adequately support fundamental research
on new solar energy technologies, i.e. devices to convert sunlight
into electricity or fuels. These days, I note, while we are able to
spend $2 billion per day on "defense" I just lost my DoE water photoelectrolysis
research funding -- a few hundred thousand dollars -- due to lack
of funds. We need to all understand that if we don't do the fundamental
science and engineering now the people of the future will not have
alternatives -- we'll be stuck with coal and oil, or nothing.
||Provide incentives for citizens to build more
energy efficient buildings
||Push for and incentivize the use of 2-D mass transit,
and overhaul, modernize and expand nation's freight rail system
||Build a new more efficient electrical grid transmission
system for the U.S.
||Provide long-term incentives for creating and
sustaining wind and solar energy industries
||Make Cap-and-Trade a national reality and put
in place a 25% by 2012 renewable portfolio standard for utilities
||Push aggressively for industries' [adoption] of
green chemistry products and processes
||Push for rapid development of lower-cost cellulosic
ethanol from biomass technologies
OS: My best case scenario for the administration's
science-related accomplishments by 2012:
||The Obama/Biden comprehensive New Energy for America
plan is accomplished
||The administration will develop an impressive
and relevant research and development plan on new energy based
on non-carbon energy for the future
Back to ERN January 26/February 2, 2009
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