ENERGY TRANSFORMATION: BRING IT ON
Dan Arvizu, the head of the National Renewable Energy Lab in Golden, Colo., was in Kansas City yesterday to talk energy with the city's Economic Club.
He reminded everyone how much the US has accomplished. "The United States is the number one producer in the world" when it comes to wind energy. At least for now.
He and I have talked in the past about the roller-coaster funding his lab has received from the federal government over the decades. Yesterday, he said that the funding levels over the decades closely correlate to the price of oil. When oil is up, so is government spending on new energy technologies. When oil is down, R&D tanks.
"We've lost a lot of opportunities,' he said.
Arvizu is at the pinnacle of trying to forge a new direction for energy in America. He does so as the co-chair of a special task force to the National Science Board, which governs the National Science Foundation and advises the president and Congress. The task force's mission: "Building a Sustainable Energy Future: U.S. Actions for an Effective Energy Economy Transformation."
Going forward, Arvizu told the economic leaders of Kansas City, " The discussion needs to be richer - we need to be thinking about things differently.'
He correctly reviewed the figures that show that energy companies and government spending on energy R&D is a small fraction of what is spent on other areas, such as the life sciences. This is important. To drive that story home, the upcoming July/August issue of EnergyBiz contain guest pieces by MIT's Don Sadoway and the Brookings Institutions' Mark Muro on the huge ramifications of this sparse support for energy R&D in the USA.
The key question, as I see it, is this. Others, most notably Germany, Denmark and China, have captured wind and solar discoveries minted in America and built large industries around them with tens of thousands of jobs. Is it too late for America?
No way, Arvizu said. Take crystalline silicon solar panel technology. The Chinese are all over it. But research is urgently needed to advance beyond that technology to get solar to the second and third generation - and cut costs dramatically. We need to do that research in America and we "need to capture the benefits" in America, Arvizu said.
The key? Simple. "Shape the market so market forces can encourage private investment - that is the only way this is going to happen," Arvizu said.
He was careful to sidestep any discussion of national energy policy, particularly since the news media was in the room - and the country was still roiling over the verbal indiscretions of one general and his squad in Rolling Stone. But he said this:
"The answer to our dilemma is transforming our energy infrastructure. It wont be as much as sacrifice as many thing it will be."
Backing that up, he reported on a new research support building going up on the NREL campus that cost about the same as conventional government space - $2.65 a square foot - and will generate as much energy as it consumes. "This is the future," he said.
"The future is not that far away."