When Energy Secretary Steven Chu talks about how Americans can break their addiction to oil and coal, he starts with his hi-fi amplifier. It’s so old that the on-off light burned out long ago. But inside lies a technology that -- in its day -- was as revolutionary as the changes needed to solve the nation’s energy problems.
Radios, telephones and other electronics once depended on fragile vacuum tubes the size of small light bulbs. Then scientists pioneered a smaller, cheaper and more durable replacement called the transistor, opening the way to trans-Atlantic phone calls and a host of other marvels, including Chu’s stereo.
Chu, a Nobel Prize-winning physicist, and other experts say similar scientific breakthroughs are needed to make renewable power sources such as wind, solar and biofuels as cheap and easy to use as costly, environmentally damaging oil and coal. Toward that end, President Obama’s stimulus package contains $8 billion for energy research, including $400 million targeted for game-changing technology.
The problem is that over the last three decades, the U.S. has spent many times that much on energy research and development -- with nothing like a transistor to show for it.
“It’s very easy to say we should spend more” on research, said Jeffrey Wadsworth, chief executive and president of the Battelle Memorial Institute, which manages several Energy Department laboratories. “What really needs to happen is more effective use of the money.”
As Wadsworth is quick to acknowledge, that’s easier said than done.
A recent Energy Department task force report details the sort of breakthroughs crucial to fulfilling Obama’s vision of a “clean energy economy” that could slash dependence on foreign oil, combat climate change and ignite the next great domestic job boom.
The wish list includes cells that convert sunlight to electricity with double or triple the efficiency of today’s solar panels; batteries that store 10 times more energy than current models; a process for capturing and storing the carbon dioxide emissions from coal; and advanced materials that allow coal and nuclear power plants to operate at hotter temperatures and higher efficiency.
Researchers are working on all of them. But what’s required is more than incremental advances in technology. It is advances in understanding basic physics and chemistry that are “beyond our present reach,” the report said.
As task force co-chairman George Crabtree, a senior scientist at Argonne National Laboratory near Chicago, put it: “Everything you can think of that is a renewable -- or somewhat more renewable -- energy option has roadblocks to it, and it needs a science solution.”
There are also roadblocks within the federal government, the Energy Department report and two other new studies suggest. Experts from the Brookings Institution said this month that the way federal energy research was being managed was “holding back innovation and rapid deployment of clean energy technology.”
And Harvard researchers said the government had “fallen short in what it can do to promote the development and deployment of advanced energy technology.”
All three reports call for more research funding, and they suggest institutional changes to spend research dollars smarter.
The Energy Department task force urges a sharper focus on basic science research, including the creation of dream teams of exceptional scientists equipped with the best tools and focused on the most pressing challenges so as “to increase the rate of discovery.”
Harvard’s Energy Technology Innovation Policy research group suggests a comprehensive federal energy innovation strategy, the absence of which “has too often meant that different parts of the U.S. government have supported different energy technologies at different times, with inadequate coordination and follow-through.”
The most detailed and aggressive recommendations come from Brookings, which calls the Energy Department’s research efforts “fragmented and insular.”
Although much of the federal government’s energy research is handled by the network of big national laboratories such as Sandia and Lawrence Livermore, Brookings proposes the creation of a national network of “energy discovery-innovation institutes” that would link federal researchers with universities and the private sector.
The academic and business leaders behind the plan say it would boost the chances for scientific breakthroughs but also help solve a second crucial issue for renewable energy: how to get new technology from the lab to consumers.
The transistor could be a model. After Bell Laboratories scientists developed it using principles of quantum mechanics, it still took nearly a decade to ramp up mass production despite the backing of a major corporation. Groundbreaking work in renewable energy today is coming to market through start-ups and small businesses that need help raising the hundreds of millions of dollars it will take to build factories for their products.
“Low-cost manufacturing and rapid deployment out into the marketplace is really where we need to make progress,” said Robert McGrath, a coauthor of the Brookings report and deputy lab director for science and technology at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Colorado.
Energy entrepreneurs agree. The government needs to help build demonstration plants for promising technologies, said Howard Berke, co-founder of the advanced solar firm Konarka Technologies Inc. in Lowell, Mass.
“The real issue is, can you make a million” of your product, said Scott Faris, the CEO of Orlando-based Planar Energy Devices Corp., which is developing super-storage batteries. “Can you make 20 million? And can you do it cost-effectively?”
Chu says he is interested in the questions of how to encourage energy breakthroughs and how to spin new technology into consumer gold. In a recent interview, he pledged to assemble the sort of research dream teams that the Energy Department task force recommended. He said he would like researchers “to create the technology and to do the science that industry would like to pick up.”
And too much government subsidy for existing renewable energy technologies can impede breakthroughs, he said, because they can become “incentive to make lots of money without too much improvement.”
Energy research needs more stable funding, Chu said, adding: “Research doesn’t cost that much. It’s when you scale up is where the real costs come.”
In recent days, Chu and other Obama administration officials have touted the energy spending in the stimulus plan. The $8 billion in direct research spending includes $1.5 billion for carbon-capture research for coal, $2.5 billion for energy efficiency and $2 billion for the Energy Department’s Office of Science -- featuring the $400 million tagged for breakthrough research.
It’s a start, said Mark Muro, a Brookings fellow who co-wrote the institution’s energy report. But, he said, “It doesn’t yet answer our challenge . . . to do things very differently.”