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Monday, April 27, 2009

Obama Launches Energy Education Initiative

By Teryn Norris & Jesse Jenkins

Last summer we developed a proposal for a National Energy Education Act (NEEA) to launch a major new federal initiative supporting clean energy-related education, in collaboration with our Breakthrough Generation Fellows. We published the proposal in two newspaper op-eds, including the SF Chronicle and Baltimore Sun, and it was later featured in Mother Jones magazine, congressional testimony, and online interview. We also submitted a fact sheet and strategy brief to the Obama campaign and called upon young people to advocate for NEEA.

Today, President Obama announced a similar energy education initiative in his speech at the National Academy of Sciences:

"There will be no single Sputnik moment for this generation's challenges to break our dependence on fossil fuels... But energy is our great project, this generation's great project... the Department of Energy and the National Science Foundation will be launching a joint initiative to inspire tens of thousands of American students to pursue these very same careers, particularly in clean energy. It will support an educational campaign to capture the imagination of young people who can help us meet the energy challenge... And it will support fellowships and interdisciplinary graduate programs and partnerships between academic institutions and innovative companies to prepare a generation of Americans to meet this generational challenge."

This new initiative is a big step in the right direction, and we applaud President Obama and his administration for their commitment to inspiring and training the next generation of clean energy innovators. As we wrote in the San Francisco Chronicle last July:

"It is imperative that we transform our nation’s universities, colleges and vocational schools into multidisciplinary hubs of clean energy innovation… Today, a National Energy Education Act would equip a new generation of Americans with the highest-caliber human capital, inspire them to tackle energy as their generational undertaking, and pave the way for new industries and technologies that will drive the U.S. economy for decades to come."

The White House released a fact sheet today on this new initiative that it claims "will inspire tens of thousands of American students to pursue careers in science, engineering, and entrepreneurship related to clean energy." The fact sheet states:

"In the 1950s and 1960s, Sputnik and the space race inspired young people to pursue careers in science and engineering... President Obama believes that we have a similar opportunity to inspire today's young people to tackle the single most important challenge of their generation - the need to develop cheap, abundant, clean energy and accelerate the transition to a low carbon economy.

The initiative -- known as RE-ENERGYSE (REgaining our ENERGY Science and Engineering Edge) -- will be jointly funded by the Department of Energy and the National Science Foundation. RE-ENERGYSE will support, for example:
  • Energy research opportunities for undergraduates
  • Educational opportunities for women and underrepresented minorities who seek careers in the clean energy sector
  • Partnerships between industry and two-year and four-year colleges to strengthen education for technicians in the clean energy sector, focusing on curriculum development, teacher training, and career pathways from high schools to community colleges
  • Interdisciplinary energy graduate programs at the master's and Ph.D. level that integrate science, engineering, entrepreneurship, and public policy
  • Individual fellowships to graduate students and postdoctoral researchers involved in the frontiers of clean energy research
  • An education and outreach campaign that uses movies, radio, cyber-learning, television, classroom curriculum, social networks, and local science museums to capture the imagination of young people, and teach them about the role that science and technology can play in addressing our energy challenge

Based on this overview, it appears that Obama's initiative shares many similarities with our NEEA proposal (see below). First, as we suggested, it will be overseen by the Department of Energy and National Science Foundation. Second, it will focus primarily on institutions of higher education, supporting undergrads, graduate students, and students at technical and vocational schools. Third, it will support interdisciplinary curriculum development, teacher training, and career development. Finally, it will promote important collaboration between private industry and colleges.

Today, the White House also announced the launch of the new Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA-E) and Energy Frontier Research Centers (EFRC) program. ARPA-E has been granted $400 million from the 2009 stimulus package, and the White House has committed to investing $777 million in EFRC over the next five years. Both will support basic and applied R&D, particularly at universities and national laboratories, but also at nonprofits and private firms. This meets NEEA's recommendation for greater energy R&D at universities and is a first step toward the $15 billion per year for clean energy R&D Obama has consistently promised.

More details are necessary to provide a comprehensive review, but based on our initial read, RE-ENERGYSE looks like an excellent start for new energy education. However, we encourage the Obama administration to ensure it receives the resources necessary to have a substantial impact. Given the scale and urgency of the energy challenge, we recommend an initiative on par with the National Defense Education Act, which required approximately $5-7 billion over five years (adjusted for inflation). We also encourage the administration to coordinate ENERGYSE with ARPA-E, EFRC, and other university-related energy research initiatives at the Department of Energy, to ensure optimal synergy.

Finally, we encourage President Obama and his administration to focus ENERGYSE primarily on inspiring and training young people to make clean energy cheap -- to pioneer the innovations that will drive down the price of clean energy technologies as rapidly as possible. As we recently argued, this is the single most important factor for overcoming our climate and energy challenges, both in the U.S. and abroad, and it needs to be the focus for our rising energy innovators.

Our generation is ready. As two members of the millennial generation and leaders in the youth energy and climate movement, we have seen a hunger for an inspirational vision and purpose for our nation as well as our education and careers. President Obama took a critical step today in providing that vision and purpose -- now he simply needs to provide the resources to make it happen.


Proposal for a National Energy Education Act

The Breakthrough Institute, July 2008

I. Improve quality of and access to education in clean energy-related fields

  • Increase financial aid and loan forgiveness for students entering clean energy-related fields
  • Support the creation of new multidisciplinary curricula and career development resources focused on clean energy
  • Expand clean energy-related service learning and work-study opportunities
  • Provide improved training and resources for clean energy-related educators at the collegiate level

II. Increase funding for clean energy R&D at universities

  • Expand funding for basic energy-related research via new research grants and graduate fellowships
  • Provide incentives to create energy research centers and initiatives

III. Support the development and implementation of new workforce training programs in clean energy industries

  • Increase funding for workforce training programs at technical and community colleges and worker retraining centers
  • Support partnerships with clean energy firms to identify workforce training needs and develop training programs

IV. Create "clean innovation pipelines" to move new products out of research labs and into private sector ventures

  • Support collaboration between government research facilities, higher education institutions, and industry on demonstrations of clean energy technologies that will be ready for deployment in the near future
  • Provide incentives for the creation of research parks and other forums facilitating communication and clean energy technology transfer between private firms and university research labs

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