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In testimony to congress this past week, new energy secretary Steven Chu made the case for the administration's energy plans which include considerable increases in spending in a number of areas, and several new programs. Among the things they appear to be really trying to push is getting ARPA-E off the ground - there's $415 million allocated, but apparently a lot of resistance within the department to actually making it happen. In a companion handout for the hearing, the case for and priority areas for ARPA-E were highlighted. The handout perhaps explains why DOE bureaucrats may be resisting:

It will bring together the best and the brightest from all sectors—national labs, academia, the private sector, individual inventors—in a way that has never been done in energy research. It will give them the resources and the autonomy they need, and it will get bureaucracy of their way.

and even more ominously for old ways of doing things:

ARPA-E Program Managers are given extraordinary autonomy and resources to pursue high-risk technological pathways, quickly assemble research teams to "crash" on projects, and start and stop projects based on performance and relevance. ARPA-E projects will not be subject to the traditional peer-review system.

Replacing peer review with program manager quick decision-making requires extraordinary abilities on the part of the program managers, and hiring such good program managers will certainly be a challenge for DOE. But the whole idea here, as with DARPA in the defense department, is to give people latitude to take risks, which means they will sometimes make wrong decisions and fail. Not taking risks is also a form of decision-making that carries its own forms of failure, far too endemic in most government departments, including the Department of Energy.

Chu's sample list of ideas for "transformational" renewable research areas with or without ARPA-E sound encouraging as well:

  • Gasoline and diesel-like biofuels generated from lumber waste, crop wastes, solid waste, and non-food crops
  • Automobile batteries with two to three times the energy density that can survive 15 years of deep discharges;
  • Photovoltaic solar power that is five times cheaper than today’s technology;
  • Computer design tools for commercial and residential buildings that enable reductions in energy consumption of up to 80 percent with investments that will pay for themselves in less than 10 years
  • Large scale energy storage systems so that variable renewable energy sources such as wind or solar power can become base-load power generators

Chu's comments on fostering cooperation are excellent:

My goal is nothing less than to build research networks within the Department, across the government, throughout the nation, and around the globe. We’ll better integrate national lab, university, and industry research. [...] DOE must also improve its efforts to demonstrate next-generation technologies and to help deploy demonstrated clean energy technologies at scale. The loan guarantee program will be critical to these efforts by helping to commercialize technologies [...]

Chu's topics of risk-taking, focus on renewables, and cooperative development and deployment are areas that DOE has simply not done nearly sufficiently or well in the past. Needless to say, the past history of problems leaves the department with a lot of critics. The Brookings Institution, for instance, recently called for establishing "energy Discovery Innovation Institutes" around the country, outside of DOE, to foster just such large-scale development and deployment of new clean energy technologies. Mark Muro or Brookings argued the case again recently in this New Republic article. As Muro points out:

[...] energy-innovation research isn't even the Energy Department's primary pursuit right now—the department's budget and attention is far more tied up with managing (and cleaning up after) the country's sprawling nuclear-weapons system. What energy-research efforts do exist within DOE, meanwhile, remain fragmented and insular.

I think the e-DII concept is a good one, but I don't think the country's ready to build these things just yet. It's possible Secretary Chu will be able to transform the energy department into the kind of institution we really need to address our energy problems, and that ARPA-E and other parts of the department will be able to do what these e-DII's are proposed to. Certainly there's some moderate effort in that direction already; if Chu can focus the department more successfully it could justify a greatly expanded budget in future years to match the scale of the need.

But if DOE bureaucracy proves too entrenched and something outside the department is really needed, this e-DII concept is not at all a bad one to push for, a year or two down the road. That seems the best approach - give the new administration a chance to succeed with what they've got now, and then re-assess in 2010 or 2011 to see if progress has been commensurate to the problem.

On progress, a wonderfully encouraging sign is last year's growth in solar photovoltaic (PV) system sales - over 100% increase from 2007. The 6 GW capacity increase for the first time means world solar PV installations grew by the equivalent of more than 1 large-ish nuclear power plant (solar cells only provide 20-25% of their nameplate capacity in average electricity production, due to day/night and sun angle issues). The largest surge was in Spain (a much more logical place for solar power than Germany!) - in both Spain and Germany the markets have greatly benefited from feed-in tariff laws.

Attached to Joe Romm's post some of the comments appear to confuse feed-in tariffs with renewable portfolio standards, but the two are different in at least two major respects: (1) feed-in tariffs benefit specifically targeted technologies (like solar PV) by having different tariff rates depending on the source technology, and (2) those rates are guaranteed to the producers, rather than subject to whatever the utility decides is the market rate for electric production that meets its renewable criteria. The result is a much larger number of smaller producers under a feed-in tariff law, and much faster potential growth rates.

Closer to where I live, solar power is coming to Long Island in a big way, with a plan to triple New York state's solar power production. 37 MW would be installed at Brookhaven Lab (the local Department of Energy institution), and another 13 MW in various smaller locations around the island. We visited a number of solar homes and buildings around here last summer; clearly the technology, while still pricey, is eminently feasible on quite a large scale now. More to come, particularly if DOE's goal of reducing costs 5-fold comes to fruition.

Originally posted to apsmith on Fri Mar 20, 2009 at 09:03 PM PDT.

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Comment Preferences

  •  tips (13+ / 0-)

    gmoke had a couple of diaries on the US solar market and a recent solar trade show. Lots of good stuff happening in solar that I thought would take much longer to ramp up.

  •  asdf (6+ / 0-)

    Among the things they appear to be really trying to push is getting ARPA-E off the ground - there's $415 million allocated, but apparently a lot of resistance within the department to actually making it happen. In a companion handout for the hearing, the case for and priority areas for ARPA-E were highlighted. The handout perhaps explains why DOE bureaucrats may be resisting:

     

    It will bring together the best and the brightest from all sectors—national labs, academia, the private sector, individual inventors—in a way that has never been done in energy research. It will give them the resources and the autonomy they need, and it will get bureaucracy of their way.

    $415 million and we're throwing 2000 times that amount down the fucking the bankster's rathole.

    Sorry, I really appreciate the effort and your diary, but this is a worthless amount of money, IMHO.

    What is DARPA's budget?

    God this all makes me sick.

    Democracy - 1 person 1 vote. Free Markets - More dollars more power.

    by k9disc on Fri Mar 20, 2009 at 09:11:44 PM PDT

    •  DARPA budget is about $3 billion (5+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      Odysseus, RunawayRose, sberel, k9disc, Lujane

      at least from what I found on Google...

      Yeah, the amount of money that goes into government R&D is piddling compared to the banking rescue. Hadn't even occurred to me to compare the numbers until you mentioned it, great point.

      •  It first occurred to me when I read (5+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        Odysseus, apsmith, RunawayRose, sberel, Lujane

        a Siegel piece about Africa and Europe putting together a massive renewable region that spans nearly a sixth of the globe, I'd guess.

        Africa will do Solar, Europe will do wind, the Med will do tidal, IIRC.

        The massive pricetag for this was something like $60B over 10 years. It'd make 15% of the region's energy totally renewable in 10 years.

        I certainly got the numbers wrong on this, but that's kind of the scale if my memory serves me.

        I read that right about the time that the American citizen was being extorted by the banksters to the tune of $700B in 6 months.

        It was absolutely astonishing to me.

        It made me think that we were seeing beginning of the death of humanity - extinction.

        Hyperbolic, perhaps, but the contrast in scale is just immeasurable. So much could be done with that wealth...

        But nope. We'll get $15B over 10 years for renewables, $415M for this DARPA clone, and $5-10T to fraudulent banksters.

        It's just mindblowing!

        peace!

        Democracy - 1 person 1 vote. Free Markets - More dollars more power.

        by k9disc on Fri Mar 20, 2009 at 09:55:11 PM PDT

        [ Parent ]

  •  Closer to where I live (4+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Odysseus, apsmith, RunawayRose, Mulkum

    in fact exactly where I live, solar has come in a small way, relatively speaking, but a big way for us.  On Tuesday the inspectors approved our new photovoltaic system - it's only 4 Kw but it's a delight to watch the meter run backwards!  And the best news is that we will be getting a federal tax credit, a state tax credit and a county tax credit and will be able to sell the local utility "renewable energy certificates" (I think they use these to up the percentage of renewables in their portfolio) so we'll only end up paying about15% of the cost ourselves.  Not to mention the free electricity.

    I'm excited!

  •  This program needs more money (0+ / 0-)

    With this small amount 415 million, assuming about 10 million per project that gets past proof of concept stage you are looking at 40 projects. Thats perhaps 5 project managers if they follow the DARPA style of research project management. I hope they have a plan to be able to get additional funding for the few projects that require more for proof of principle before private sector commercialization. For example the nuclear fusion projects like Bussard's polywell tech and related projects. I suspect each of these needs much more money for proof of concept.

    "Everybody does better, when everybody does better" - Paul Wellstone 1997

    by yuriwho on Sat Mar 21, 2009 at 10:06:36 PM PDT

  •  Not Surprised - Usual Government Tech Mindset (0+ / 0-)

    For whatever reason, the US Government - including apparently the DOE - just doesn't seem interested in supporting incremental progress and always is looking for a huge game changing technology - or NOTHING.   So unless, you have a game changing - nobel prize worthy - alternative energy technology concept that reduces cost by 5X, don't expect any funding from the DOE.  Meanwhile the German and Asian companies will continue to dominate (overwhelm) any domestic (US) production of alternative energy technology thanks to their more rational Government support - such as solar feed in tariffs (Germany) or flat out subsidies (China).  What the US Government and apparently Chu don't understand, is that you need to get lots of US Scientists and Engineers working in Alternative Energy technology areas to first build their knowledge base and understanding of relevant problems/issues and then the great new ideas will come.   Granted a few professors will come up with some good ideas - plus there's certainly plenty of good ideas out there that have been going nowhere simply for lack of funding (from the Bush Admin) and an initial burst of DOE funds should make an immediate impact.   But the fact remains, the US alternative energy industry - as measured by the number of scientist and engineers is miniscule - which is the first problem that Chu needs to solve.  Essentially, Chu needs to think in terms of creating alternative energy companies or possibly Government labs equivalent to the existing large US defense contractors that employ lots of US Citizens and manufacture - in volume - alternative energy technology.

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