On January 12, Secretary of Energy Steven Chu addressed the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, and in a wide ranging discussion, Chu touched on the work being done by the Department of Energy, the need for sustained funding for energy research and development, and the future of nuclear power generation.
Chairman Jeff Bingaman (D-NM) emphasized the importance of energy R&D in his opening statement, calling the development of new technologies the, “major engineer of economic growth in our time.” Bingaman highlighted what he characterized as a “deficiency in energy related research” by comparing the overall sales of products in given industrial sectors to federal investment in them. Medical and biotechnology research as a percentage of sales are about 40 times larger than R&D investments in energy. Bingaman also offered a graph showing federal investments in energy well below other R&D areas.
Ranking Member Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) called for expanded energy R&D for nonrenewable energy sources in her opening statement. Murkowski also said that she looked forward to learning more about the medium and long-term prospects for nuclear power, and the associated issue of spent nuclear fuel storage.
Chu began his statement by noting the spurt of legislative activity on energy and climate change in 2009, but cautioned, “I am concerned that we have not adequately focused on the importance of research and development of new energy technologies.”
Chu went on to say:
“Investment in energy R&D will drive innovation across the economy and maintain American competitiveness. It will create jobs and entire new industries. And it is vital for meeting the energy and climate challenge. We have many technologies in hand today to begin a transition to a low-carbon economy, and we are accelerating that work through the Recovery Act. But, over the long-term, we will need breakthroughs and better technologies to make the steep reductions in greenhouse gas emissions we need.”
“Several years ago, I was a member of the committee that produced the National Academies Report ‘Rising Above the Gathering Storm.’ As our report stated: ‘Since [noted economist] Solow’s pioneering work, the economic value of investing in science and technology has been thoroughly investigated. Published estimates of return on investment for publically funded R&D range from 20 to 67%.’ Let me stress that we were talking about an annual rate of return on investments.”
Chu offered examples of DOE funded projects, including battery, refrigerator, and fluorescent lamp research that have paid off for both their developers, and consumers.
Chu then outlined three “complementary” funding programs, “to marshal the nation’s brightest minds to accelerate energy breakthroughs:”
“The first approach is the Energy Frontier Research Centers, which are multi-year, multi-investigator scientific collaborations focused on overcoming known hurdles in basic science.
“The second approach is the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (see FYI# 11).”
“The third novel funding approach, Energy Innovation Hubs, will establish larger, highly integrated teams working to solve priority technology challenges. This work spans from basic research to engineering development so that the ideas can be quickly commercialized.”
“The Hubs will tackle three of the most important energy challenges we face: How can we derive fuels directly from sunlight in an efficient and economical way? How can we design, construct and retrofit commercial and residential buildings that are vastly more energy efficient than today’s buildings? How can we use modeling and simulation technologies to make significant leaps forward in nuclear reactor design and engineering? The Hubs are expected to begin work in 2010 and will be fully operational by 2011.
“I am extremely excited about these programs, as well as the Department’s other research and development efforts. Today, the Department of Energy has assembled, and continues to recruit, a team of extraordinary talented individuals with technical depth and breadth. The shared camaraderie of this team is also beginning to break down decades of stove-piped thinking.
“We are changing the way we do business at the DOE to improve customer responsiveness and the quality of our selection of competitive grants. As an example, in order to identify the best possible reviewers for the first round of ARPA-E proposals, I wrote a letter to many of the Presidents of our research universities to ask for the names of their best scientists and engineers. We then called upon those people to help review the proposals, arguing that they should help us as part of their patriotic duty. The technical community responded heroically and we were able to review 3,700 applications, conducting over 4.2 person years of work, in a few short weeks. That fact that we could only fund 1 percent of the applications speaks volumes that additional research support would be money well spent.”
Chu concluded his prepared statement echoing a theme commonly heard in science related committees; “To achieve our energy and climate goals, we need a strong and sustained commitment to research and development.”
During the subsequent question and answer period, Murkowski asked Chu if the White House was looking at ways to restrict expanded nuclear power research to specific types of nuclear reactor designs. Chu replied that the White House is “supportive of nuclear,” seeing it as “part of the solution.” When pressed by Murkowski, Chu deflected that deliberations are ongoing.
Murkowski also asked if the Obama administration agreed that a geological long-term repository for nuclear waste was necessary. Chu replied in the affirmative. Murkowski followed that question by asking, as others would later, when the long awaited Blue Ribbon Commission to examine long-term nuclear storage would be convened. Chu announced the appointment of that Commission on January 29 (see FYI# 12).
Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT) assailed the idea of dramatically expanding nuclear power generation. Sanders said that the US has put more money into nuclear R&D than any other power source, and warned that nuclear power requires overwhelmingly expensive infrastructure development, and challenged Senators to identify states that are willing to host the nation’s nuclear waste. Sanders instead encouraged greater investments in energy efficiency improvements and conservation technologies. Chu agreed that energy efficiency and conservation is “very low hanging fruit.”