Amongst the background of two cabinet level agencies announcing huge new investments in a clean and secure energy future, Dr. Michael Holland of the Office of the Under Secretary for Science in the Department of Energy spoke in Austin today about the process of finding funding for research and development (particularly for clean energy) within the constantly changing world of Washington DC. He also spoke specifically about the release of the new Quadrennial Technology Review which will, hopefully, provide the kind of long term planning that has been a cornerstone of the Defense Department’s approach to fighting the “next war” for decades, but which has been sorely lacking from the government’s approach to energy policy.
Holland discussed the historical problems with energy research funding within the DOE, saying, “every [fiscal] year, funding for a given technology [be it coal, nuclear, increased efficiency, or clean tech] has a 33% chance to change more than 25%.” To put it another way, “political struggles on Capitol Hill always beat a long term focus on R&D.” The department’s new quadrennial review hopes to address this dysfunction by laying out concrete, long term goals for improving our energy security and reducing our reliance on old, dirty technologies.
Holland described the numerous challenges faced by policy makers trying to craft a long term energy policy. First, energy policy, ironically, represents the smallest, and least funded mission of the DOE. The building and maintenance of nuclear weapons, securing fissile materials around the world, and providing research funding to universities and laboratories are the three primary roles of DOE. Along these lines, DOE’s budgets for energy research have not always reflected the best use of funds. Its 2011 budget had “the least amount of money going to the most accessible areas.” Only 4% of the 2011 budget went to electric vehicle research (which is available, easily implemented technology), only 6% was spent on a smart grid (which is integral in making the switch to electric vehicles), and a whopping 51% was spent on renewable energy generation (which is important, but further from becoming a truly beneficial reality). Hopefully, the new review will help the department target the “best” use of its limited funds, and, more importantly, keep that focus consistent from year to year in spite of the fickle political winds swirling about Washington.
In discussing the switch to truly clean energy sources, Holland stressed the difficulty in transforming an energy system as large and “mature” as the one we have. “The scale of the system is enormous and change happens very slowly.” He did, however, outline the department’s 6 point strategy: increase the efficiency of vehicles, electrify public vehicle fleets, find alternative hydrocarbons for heavy duty vehicles (think bio-diesel for 18 wheelers), increase the efficiency of buildings and industry (52% of energy generated in the US is lost to inefficiencies), modernize the grid, and finally to deploy clean energy generation. Some of these things can happen quickly (particularly the electric vehicles), and some could take a very long time (transitioning our electric generation from coal to solar or wind).
At a conference in Washington, today, Bill Gates similarly discussed the problems with energy funding in the US today. “It’s crazy how little we are funding this energy stuff.” He added that it is “likely that underfunding is delaying the rate of progress” on new technologies.
The Department of Defense, however, does not feel the same budgetary constraints as its smaller cousins in the executive branch, and today, it announced a massive ($7 billion) proposal to build “large scale” clean energy power generation facilities on federal lands across the country. Of course the DOD, had more than just clean energy in mind when it announced its intention to generate 25% of its energy from renewable sources by 2025; a 2010 study showed that fuel made up 50% by volume of all transportation in Iraq and Afghanistan, that there was 1 casualty for every 24 fuel related convoys, and that a 10% reduction in fuel consumption would have saved at least 35 service members’ lives over the preceding 5 years.
For DOD, the switch to clean tech is about saving lives. We need to realize that the switch to clean tech will save lives for the rest of us too. As Bill Gates explained, newer, better sources of energy are key to improving the lives of the poorest 2 billion people on earth. “Without advances in energy, they stay stuck where they are. If you look at who will be the victims of climate change, it will be small holder farmers [in equatorial nations] ... and that brings you back to energy.”