The Energy Debate with Bill Gates

Update Sept 2: Bill Gates has responded at Dot Earth

Andrew Revkin is hosting an interesting discussion at New York Times Dot Earth right now on energy innovation policy.  It began with a post about Bill Gates’ recent interview with MIT Technology Review, which focused primarily on energy, and a rebuke from one commentator,  Richard Rosen, in “A Challenge to Bill Gates on Energy Research.”  Revkin encouraged discussion in an email to several experts, and this was my initial contribution.  Bill Gates is apparently offering a response at Dot Earth tomorrow, so stay tuned:

The White House recently released its report on how ARRA is promoting innovation, particularly in solar PV, batteries, and DNA sequencing.  ”Near-term improvements will be able to cut the cost of solar power in half, as second generation thin-film solar panels such as the rapidly emerging CIGS and Cd-Te technologies compete with ever improving traditional silicon-based panels,” the report noted. “Beyond that, breakthrough technologies could make solar as cheap as new fossil fuel plants without government incentives.”

This assertion stands in direct contrast to one of Richard Rosen’s most basic assumptions, which is that it is thermodynamically infeasible for low-carbon electric generation technology to provide electricity as cheap or cheaper than coal-fired power plants.  Secretary Chu’s own assessment that we need several Nobel-caliber level breakthroughs to make low-carbon energy cheap enough to compete also stands in contrast.  I think we can assume that Secretary Chu understands the second law of thermodynamics! (As well as Dr. Holdren and his team, for that matter, who I’m sure played an important role in the White House report).


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Americans for Energy Leadership — one of the nation’s foremost energy policy think tanks and advocacy groups led by young people – is seeking applicants for the New Energy Leaders Project, an initiative to empower young thought leaders and help define the next national energy and economic agenda.

What: Selective program for young leaders to engage in high-level writing, research, and discussion at the intersection of energy, economic, and national security policy.

Why: The old energy and climate agenda has failed, and the United States needs a new generation of thought leaders to challenge conventional wisdom and shape the next agenda.

Who: Graduate students, undergrads, and young professionals

Positions: Policy Fellows, Featured Columnists, and Contributors

When: October 2010 – February 2011

Deadline for applications is October 1st, 2010

See full description below, download as a PDF, or view online here.


What’s the Next Economic Agenda?

“THE American economy is once again tilting toward danger,” reports the New York Times today.

Despite an aggressive regimen of treatments from the conventional to the exotic — more than $800 billion in federal spending, and trillions of dollars worth of credit from the Federal Reserve — fears of a second recession are growing, along with worries that the country may face several more years of lean prospects.

How should President Obama respond?  The NYT editorial board suggests the following:

Mr. Obama also needs to inspire Americans who have been ground down by the economic crisis and Washington’s small-bore sniping. He needs to rally the nation around a big idea — a project that is worth sacrificing for, worth paying for, worth working for. One that lets them know that there is more ahead than just a return to a status quo of lopsided growth in which corporate profits surge while jobs and incomes lag.

That mission could be the “21st century infrastructure,” that Mr. Obama mentioned on a multi-city trip this month, “not just roads and bridges, but faster Internet access and high-speed rail.” It could be energy independence, with high-tech green jobs and a real chance for addressing global warming. Either of the above would make sense, economically and politically.

How about a national clean energy competitiveness and innovation project?


biden recovery

Yesterday, the White House released a report touting the recovery act’s success at fostering innovation in key economic sectors, most notably clean energy.  ARRA’s $30 billion clean energy investment is unique in its comprehensive approach, the White House notes, containing “investments across the innovation chain – from retooling current auto factories to new manufacturing and commercial deployment to research and development of electric drives and batteries.”

According to the report, the energy investment spike will achieve three major breakthroughs:

“1) Cutting the cost of solar power in half by 2015, putting it on par with the cost of retail electricity from the grid.

2) Cutting the cost of batteries for electric vehicles by 70 percent between 2009 and 2015, putting the lifetime cost of an electric vehicle on-par with that of its non-electric counterpart.

3) Doubling U.S. renewable energy generation capacity and U.S. renewable manufacturing capacity by 2012, a breakthrough that would not be possible without the Recovery Act.

Robust federal investment in clean energy technologies has created the foundation for an energy industrial revolution in the United States, but the subtext of all this good news is that the achievements are being threatened by an impending funding cliff.  When the funding dries up, the fruits of many of these investments could wilt on the branches before they ever have time to ripen.  As Jesse Jenkins and Devon Swezey noted at Breakthrough Institute:

“Yet while the White House report highlights the considerable clean energy momentum established by the Recovery Act, it also inadvertently raises the specter of an impending clean tech funding cliff which risks sending U.S. clean energy industries into deep freeze as stimulus funds begin to expire over the coming months…. Facing such intense global competition, and with Recovery Act funds poised to expire soon, sending U.S. clean energy markets off a clean tech funding cliff, the U.S. is in dire need of a long-term clean energy investment strategy to regain economic and technological leadership in this new growth sector.”



As America Stalls, Competitors Advance

The Atlantis-AK1000 tidal energy turbine unveiled last week in Scotland.

The Atlantis-AK1000 tidal energy turbine unveiled last week in Scotland.

That America is lagging behind other nations in developing and deploying products in the emerging $600 billion renewable energy technology market has been well-documented. But it can be surprising to realize just how rapidly others are progressing relative to the U.S: (more…)


President Obama speaking at ZBB Energy in Wisconsin. The President emphasized the importance of developing renewable energy economy in order to secure a prosperous future.

President Obama speaking at ZBB Energy in Wisconsin. The President emphasized the importance of developing renewable energy economy in order to secure a prosperous future.

At a speech at ZBB Energy in Wisconsin this week, the President announced a commitment to create 800,000 clean energy jobs by 2012 that will not only “create work in the short-term, but lay the foundation for lasting economic growth.”

ZBB produces advanced zinc bromide flow batteries and intelligent power control platforms for renewable energy storage with the help of a $1.3 million loan through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) State Energy Program loan. The company is using the loan to support a $4.5 million factory renovation that it anticipates will triple its capacity to manufacture flow batteries and power systems—proof of what federal capital applied to innovative energy technologies stands to achieve.

The President emphasized that despite the prognostications of pessimists, the sun has not set on American manufacturing, and that renewable energy technologies provide an opportunity to “jumpstart a homegrown clean energy industry” in America. The global market for clean energy technologies is forecast to reach $450 billion by 2012, and $600 billion by 2020. (more…)

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science-class460_1111495cAmerica’s energy crisis could be worsened by  a looming education crisis.   The DOE, as well as AEL, have expressed concern in the past over a lack of education and work force training in energy related fields.  Today, Kristina Johnson, the Under Secretary for Energy, wrote on this subject as well as the DOE’s Energy Education and Workforce Development Request for Information (RFI),

“Reports like this one from the nonprofit Center for Energy Workforce Development are a cause for concern, as they warn that 40% – 60% of the current energy utility workforce could be eligible to retire by 2012. The National Renewable Energy Laboratory cautions that a shortage of training and skills is ‘a leading barrier to renewable energy and energy-efficiency growth.’”

The goal of the RFI is to gather data through September 3, 2010 to get a better sense of the “status, prevalence, quality, and gaps in education and workforce development relevant to energy technologies.”  The results will likely highlight what has become an astonishing truth, America is not preparing its students for one of the largest growth industries of the future.  This reality is well documented, just this year a report by the National Science Board pointed out that, “the United States has fallen from one of the top countries in terms of its ratio of natural science and engineering degrees to the college-age population to near the bottom of the 23 countries for which data are available.”

The emerging workforce and STEM education gaps, if not addressed, will jeopardize America’s ability to compete in a clean-energy economy. That is why earlier this year AEL strongly supported RE-ENERGYSE, a proposal to increase federal funding for education in clean-energy related fields by $74 million for universities, community and technical colleges, and K-12 schools.  It is also why 107 student body presidents signed a letter asking congress to pass the legislation.  Unfortunately RE-ENERGYSE was not passed and problem has not gone away, but is good to see the DOE continuing to lead the charge for an educated clean-energy workforce.

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Since the collapse of climate legislation, advocates have issued a number of post-mortems and ideas for moving forward.  One of the leading commentators on this front is Andrew Revkin — the lead New York Times environment reporter from 1995 through 2009 — and today at NYT Dot Earth he defined what he calls “The Technology Imperative for Energy and Climate“:

“If you care about fostering prosperity in poor places while limiting the buildup of greenhouse gases in the globe’s shared atmosphere, it’s time to recognize the technology imperative that lies behind the world’s entwined climate and energy challenges… Without greatly intensified work to advance and disseminate energy choices that don’t come with heat-trapping emissions, there’s no smooth path as human populations and appetites crest in the next two generations.”

As an example of what the next agenda might look like, Revkin republishes our op-ed from last week at the National Journal Energy Expert Blog.  In the article, we argued that the United States must quickly pivot from pollution regulation to an aggressive clean energy competitiveness and innovation agenda, including robust and targeted federal support for clean energy research and innovation, manufacturing, and domestic market demand, as well as infrastructure, education, and industry cluster formation.

This builds on the ongoing leadership of groups like Breakthrough InstituteBrookings Metro Policy CenterITIFThird WayAmerican Energy Innovation CouncilBipartisan Policy Center, and others who are helping define a new and robust energy and climate agenda.  We encourage you to follow their work in the months ahead, as well as Andrew Revkin’s commentary at Dot Earth.


Last Thursday, Energy Secretary Steven Chu announced that 150 students have been chosen to receive graduate fellowship awards for the Department of Energy Graduate Fellowship program.  The award includes tuition, living expenses, and research support for three years:

“The exceptionally talented students selected as graduate fellows are part of our nation’s next generation of scientific and technical leaders,” said Secretary Chu. “This investment in the training of scientists and engineers is part of the Administration’s continued effort to ensure that America has the scientific and engineering workforce we need to secure our energy future and our continued economic competitiveness.”

The goal of the fellowship program is to encourage students to pursue graduate degrees in physics, chemistry, biology, mathematics, engineering, and environmental and computer sciences—fields that will prepare students for careers that can make significant contributions in discovery-driven science and science for national needs in energy and the environment.

The goal of the program is to strengthen the nation’s scientific workforce, which is currently at serious risk, especially in the energy sector.  The National Science Board reports that science and engineering make up only about one-third of U.S. bachelor’s degrees, compared to 63 percent in Japan, 53 percent in China, and 51 percent in Singapore.  This step to address the problem was made possible by $12.5 million from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.

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Last Tuesday, China revealed its Clean Vehicle Investment Plan (2011-2020), which would invest over 100 billion RMB ($14.7 billion) in the development of electric and hybrid vehicles. The new investment is aimed to help China reach its annual production goal of 500,000 alternative technology vehicles by 2011.

Through China’s Energy Law and the coming 12th Five-Year Energy Development Plan, the nation has proven that it intends to lead on both the economic and renewable energy front. China has already surpassed the U.S. as the largest investor in clean energy in 2009. Bloomberg Businessweek also reported that China may spend about 5 trillion RMB ($738 billion) more in the next decade developing cleaner sources of energy.  If the plan gets approved successfully by the State Council, some analysts predict an annual increase of 1.5 billion RMB ($220 million) in clean energy production value and the creation of 15 million jobs.

When China recently updated its Renewable Energy Law to include the 15-year Science and Technology Development Plan, it launched talent development programs across the nation and opened 16 new clean energy R&D centers. By taking such action, China sent out a stable signal to local governments as well as domestic and foreign companies, which will attract more private investment and further foster China’s clean energy cluster development.  The Washington Post cited China’s foreign investment in the first six months of the year as having rose 19.6 percent to $51.4 billion, after a 14.3 percent increase in the first five months. China’s sustained investments have attracted the world’s biggest energy companies and venture capitalists. A few of the most prominent examples of this are:


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