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Thursday, August 06, 2009

Secretary of Energy: Breakthroughs Essential to Fully Meet Nation’s Energy Challenges

Today, the U.S. Department of Energy announced $377 million in funding to establish 46 Energy Frontier Research Centers (EFRCs) pursuing potentially path-breaking basic and translational research at the cutting-edge of clean energy innovation. Of this funding, $277 comes from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA, otherwise known as the stimulus package) and $100 million comes from the DOE’s FY2009 budget. The funding will be sustained over the next five years, with the DOE committing $100 million of its budget to the research centers each year.

“Meeting the challenge to reduce our dependence on imported oil and curtail greenhouse gas emissions will require significant scientific advances,” said Energy Secretary Steven Chu as he announced the new funding for EFRCs. “These centers will mobilize the enormous talents and skills of our nation’s scientific workforce in pursuit of the breakthroughs that are essential to expand the use of clean and renewable energy.”

The majority of EFRCs are based in universities, with several harnessing the skills and resources of the national laboratories, and just three awarded to non-profit organizations and private corporations. Over the course of the program, these centers will employ over 1,800 people in research into four primary realms: Renewable and Carbon-Neutral Energy (including Solar Energy Utilization, Advanced Nuclear Energy Systems, Biofuels, and Geological Sequestration of CO2); Energy Efficiency (Clean and Efficient Combustion, Solid State Lighting, Superconductivity); Energy Storage (Hydrogen Research, Electrical Energy Storage); and Crosscutting Science (Catalysis, Materials under Extreme Environments).

A few examples of the research this funding will support include (full list here):

  • Columbia University will focus on achieving higher sunlight-to-electricity conversion efficiencies from thin film solar photovoltaics.
  • Cornell University will focus on advanced battery chemistry and design that could enable affordable electric vehicles or mass on-grid energy storage
  • University of Texas-Austin will focus on advanced materials used in energy storage technologies.
  • Purdue University will focus on improved conversion of biomass to energy, fuels or chemicals.
To be sure, this funding should be celebrated – this research is crucial to developing the scientific foundation for breakthrough energy technologies. It is a great (small) step. But the time has long since come to fully invest in our nation’s innovators and the cutting-edge research essential to both improve today’s clean energy technologies and to achieve breakthroughs that pave the way for the transformational energy technologies of tomorrow. Both forms of support are necessary to make clean energy cheap.

Unfortunately, total U.S. spending on energy research, development and deployment is in a sorry state. I noted yesterday that the entire budget for ARPA-e (a newly funded government agency centered on high-risk, high-reward energy research) is less than talk show personality Rush Limbaugh’s latest contract. In total the U.S. government spent about $4 billion on energy research in 2007 (the same as the Navy’s phone bill that year by the way). That figure is thankfully up somewhat, with this new infusion of innovation investment in the stimulus and President Obama’s FY 2009 budget, but still just barely tops $5 billion. In contrast, the United States spends over $30 billion annually to pursue cures to deadly diseases and improve human health through the National Institutes of Health – evidence of the scale of a true national innovation priority.

While spending on energy research is expected to be higher this year than in recent years (in large part due to the stimulus), we need a sustained commitment to clean energy that reflects the scale of our mounting energy and climate challenge. The Waxman-Markey climate and energy bill, currently promoted as the next driver of a clean energy economy, would invest only about $1.2 billion annually in energy research and development and roughly $10 billion in the clean energy sector as a whole – less than 0.1 percent of U.S. GDP. In contrast, South Korea is investing a full 2 percent of its GDP in clean technologies, and China is planning to invest $44-66 billion annually to build their own modern clean energy industries and infrastructure. We must inspire and empower our nation’s youth to become the next generation of energy innovators by fully funding President Obama’s RE-ENERGYSE initiative, and we must build and expand upon this new funding for Energy Frontier Research Centers as just the first launching pad into the next frontiers of clean energy deployment.

Cross-posted at The Breakthrough Institute

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