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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

President's Science Advisor Discusses Energy R&D

Air Date: Week of

The Department of Energy has released a new far-reaching to transform the way the U.S. is powered. The Director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, John Holdren, tells host Bruce Gellerman about some of the conventional and unconventional solutions to meet our nation’s energy challenges.


GELLERMAN: From the Jennifer and Ted Stanley Studios in Somerville, Massachusetts, this is Living on Earth. I'm Bruce Gellerman. More than 80 percent of the energy we use comes from burning coal and oil. The fossil fuels are cheap and abundant, but they're also dirty and supplies of petroleum pose national security risks.

Now comes a new federal report that concludes our nation is at a crossroads, and it issues an urgent call for energy transformation. The Department of Energy’s first Quadrennial Technology Report deals with our energy future, federal research dollars and hard budget choices.

John Holdren, director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, is President Obama’s top science advisor. It was Dr. Holdren who asked the DOE for the energy report.

HOLDREN: We face an enormous set of energy challenges in respect to the relation of energy in our economy, energy in our environment, energy in our national security. And, we’re not currently innovating rapidly enough to be able to develop and deploy the new and better energy technologies we’re going to need to meet those challenges.

That’s going to take more effort from the private sector, but it’s also going to take more effort from the public sector - from the government.

GELLERMAN: Well, I want to ask you about the funding for the Department of Energy’s technology office - and that is, it went down from over four billion just a year ago to three billion now. We’re spending a billion dollars a day just on oil, so the DOE’s investment in energy technologies is a drop in the bucket, and it’s almost equal to the entire budget that all of private industry spends.

HODLREN: Well, it’s always been true that the amount of money spent in research and development in a field is only a modest fraction of the amount we spend on the commodities in question in the same time period.

So, for example, the average across US industry is four percent of total revenues get spent on R&D. Energy, unfortunately, is well below that average mark. Public and private spending together on energy research and development is under one percent of what we spend for energy itself.

GELLERMAN: I noticed the pharmacy industry spends nearly 20 percent.

HOLDREN: Yes, the pharmacy industry is extraordinary in how much they spend. Software also spends a lot. The fact that we spend less than one percent on energy R&D - of what we spend on energy altogether - is clearly an anomaly. It’s too little. We need to boost what the government is doing. We need to boost what the private sector is doing.

GELLERMAN: The government is by far the largest user of energy - the single user of energy - in the nation and 90 percent of that goes to the Department of Defense.

Electricity generated at power plants is transmitted through high-voltage power lines. The DOE wants to revamp the network of nearly 160,000 miles of lines run across America, known as “the grid.” (Courtesy of Duke Energy, QTR Review)

HOLDREN: Yes, that’s true, and the Department of Defense is very much aware of the extent of its energy dependence. And it has become, in recent years, very interested in improving the energy efficiency of the vehicles and the other systems that use energy that the Department of Defense relies on, because that dependence on foreign oil creates foreign policy and military vulnerabilities.

GELLERMAN: Well, with the emphasis on oil and transportation fuels, does that mean that there’s less emphasis on stationary sources like power generating sources and the environment is taking a back seat, because those are the sources that are contributing to climate change.

HOLDREN: Well, first of all, all of the fossil fuels we burn contribute to climate change, whether they’re burned in vehicles or in electric power plants or in residential gas furnaces.

But the question as to whether there is too much emphasis on stationary sources in the current R&D portfolio of the DOE, I would put it a different way - I would say there’s too little emphasis on the mobile sources, too little emphasis on transportation. But I would not recommend reducing what we spend on the stationary sources, because that is essential. It’s essential from the standpoint of the economy. It’s essential from the standpoint of the environment. And it’s also essential from the standpoint of national security.

GELLERMAN: The United States produces about four percent of its energy from renewable sources…

HOLDREN: That’s the right ballpark, yes.

GELLERMAN: And I noticed a report that just came out that said from 1990-2010, carbon dioxide emissions have gone up 45 percent - that’s worldwide, and the United States has gone up commensurately in that 20 year period - despite energy efficiency, despite alternatives. In your mind, what do we need to do to address climate change?

This thermal image of houses in front of a coal-fired power plant shows the loss of energy through heat. The average coal plant loses about two-thirds of its energy as heat, and heat escapes from houses through the roof. (Credit: Tyrone Turner, QTR Review)

HOLDREN: Well, first of all, we have been improving energy efficiency steadily; we just have not improved it rapidly enough to offset the growth in the total amount of energy used. And the result is that on the whole, carbon dioxide emissions in the United States, over the period you mentioned, have been going up - although they have gone down for the last few years, unfortunately for a bad reason, namely the great slow down in economic growth.

Which finally put us into a position where energy efficiency was improving faster than overall energy use was growing, but that’s not the right way to do it. The right way to do it is a mix of continuing efforts to improve energy efficiency and continuing efforts to bring more carbon-free energy sources into the balance sheet. And that can be biofuels, it can be electricity from windmills and photovoltaic cells, it can be advanced fossil fuel technologies that capture the carbon dioxide and keep it out of the atmosphere.

GELLERMAN: Twenty percent of the Department of Energy’s budget for technology is supposed to go for 'out of the box activities.' You got a favorite ‘out of the box activity?'

HOLDREN: Oh, I have a lot of them, actually. One sort of out of the box activity would be to figure out how to make photovoltaic cells as cheap as paint. And, in fact, you could use them like paint - put them on roofs, walls, vehicles and so on. In fact, I know some folks who are working on a nanotechnology enabled photovoltaic paint for automobiles that would enable hybrid cars to recharge their batteries in part off sunlight hitting the car.

GELLERMAN: Dr. Holdren, you've still got the passion for science.


GELLERMAN: But are you frustrated? You’ve been in the office for three years. It’s a tough job.

HOLDREN: Well, it’s an exciting job. You know, we have a president who understands the importance and the potential of science and technology in helping us meet our national aspirations. There are frustrations, of course, in Washington DC, but I’m still finding that the exhilaration outweighs the frustration.

GELLERMAN: You going to stick around for a second term, if that comes to pass?

HOLDREN: Well, first of all, I very much hope a second term comes to pass, and whether I stick around will be up to the President.

GELLERMAN: Well, Dr. Holdren, thank you so very much.

HOLDREN: My pleasure, great talking with you. And it’s a great show. Keep up the good work!

GELLERMAN: We’ll try! Dr. John Holdren is President Obama’s top science advisor. For more - and to hear an interview with the author of the Energy Department’s report - Under Secretary for Science Steven Koonin - go to our web site: L-O-E dot ORG.



The DOE’s Under Secretary of Science, Steve Koonin lead the technology review. Listen to Bruce Gellerman’s interview with him here.

Visit the Office of Science and Technology Policy site.

Read the Quadrennial Technology Review here.

Other solutions from the Department of Energy.


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