Sober Words from DOE

by Richard T. Stuebi

At the recent Western Energy Summit, Dr. Steven Koonin (Undersecretary of Science at the U.S. Department of Energy) made a speech with some eye-opening tid-bits. In this review on GreenTechMedia, Koonin is quoted as saying about the daunting challenges in moving away from fossil fuels:

“We have limited time and limited resources….We cannot let 1,000 flowers bloom indiscriminately.”

“The deployment of inefficient feel-good resources is doubly-bad” because they give the illusion of progress and divert scarce resources.

Coal “is not going to disappear anytime soon,” so much more effort needs to be put into carbon capture and storage technologies.

“If the world wants to seriously address emissions, nuclear will almost certainly have to be part of the future.”

Most interestingly, as reported by the August 3rd issue of the Peak Oil Review, Koonin is said to have opined in his speech that “resource constraints soon will force the Department of Energy to narrow its focus onto the most promising technologies.” If true, this is worrisome because (1) it possibly implies that the DOE isn’t necessarily expecting any major increases in R&D funding — and our national energy R&D budgets are considered by many to be pretty darn low in light of the challenges we face (see, for instance, this report by the Government Accounting Office), and (2) it suggests that DOE will increasingly start picking “winners and losers” — and the public sector is not known for being good at making such judgments.

If anyone can find Koonin’s speech text in full, I’d appreciate getting a copy.

Richard T. Stuebi is the Fellow for Energy and Environmental Advancement at The Cleveland Foundation, and is also the Founder and President of NextWave Energy, Inc. Effective September 1, he will also become Managing Director of Early Stage Partners.

4 replies
  1. Anonymous
    Anonymous says:

    Dr. Koonin, not only a scientist, but a pragmatist and realist as well.At some juncture(and soon for our country's sake)we must listen to the voices of reason.

  2. Anonymous
    Anonymous says:

    DOE has some substantial problems with structure and how it funds external grants. A recent example is ARPA-E, conceived as a way to develop new energy technologies. The initial grant program was funded with $150 million, less than the cost of one F-22. This program had 3,500 applicants! Only 2% were invited to submit full proposals. The other 98%, presumably including the best and brightest energy researchers, received a "Notification of Discouragement" and no feedback. This is not a serious approach to either oil dependency or climate change. DOE already does pick winners and losers through its FOAs, and this process needs to be radically altered to get needed government funding to innovators and small tech firms which might have a shot at solving these problems.

  3. Anthony Chessick
    Anthony Chessick says:

    Be grateful for the "thousand flowers", each one of which these days is most likely to have something of value to say albeit in proportion to its worth. What does the DOE wish? Another super alloy? Another high strength composite? Another super conducting material? In the news recently was something about nanocarbon tubes that "piqued" the DOE's interest. The reality is that the renewables are largely about matters making use of the elementary physics and math involved with engineering questions, within which are plenty of challenges. The correct use of funds is to disburse them more widely in proportion to a careful judging of the possible value of each submittal.

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