Q&A
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.

The researchers:
  · Sheila G. Bailey, senior physicist at NASA Glenn Research Center. Bailey is an authority on photovoltaics.
  · Bent Sørensen, professor of physics at Roskilde University in Denmark. Sørensen is an authority on fuel cells and hydrogen energy.
  · Jacob Karni, professor of mechanical engineering at the Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel. Karni is an authority on concentrated solar energy systems.
  · Craig Grimes, professor of electrical engineering at Pennsylvania State University. Grimess an authority on solar hydrogen generation.
  · Ali T-Raissi, director, Advanced Energy Research Division, University of Central Florida. T-Raissi is an authority on hydrogen energy.
  · Oumarou 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 problem
  · 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 administration

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 Science Advisor?

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 and entities.

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 energy.

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 more.

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 partisan politics.
  · 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 attacks.
  · Invest in the development and use of zero-energy homes, plug-in hybrid vehicles and closed-loop energy production and utilization.
  · Work closely with the Congress to substantially reduce, if not completely eliminate, congressionally directed (pork barrel) spending and entitlements in all areas especially energy R&D.
  · 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.

AT-R:
  · 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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