Challenges and Opportunities for New National Energy Appointees

Dr. Samuel W. Bodman, former Treasury and Commerce Department political appointee, is now to become Secretary of Energy (Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee confirmation hearings began last week). Dr. Dan E. Arvizu, former Sandia National Laboratory manager and Vice President of engineering company CH2Mhill, has now been named as Director of the National Renewable Energy Laboratory. Never has there been a more important time for both these new energy leaders to confront historic high natural gas rates, recently high gasoline prices, and record US trade deficits in which energy imports are at the top of that list.

Senate Energy and Natural Resources Chairman Pete Domenici is holding hearings on natural gas, primarily soliciting input from the standard array of conventional policy advisors who are, not surprisingly, pushing conventional solutions — increased liquefied natural gas imports, use of ‘clean coal’, drilling in Alaska (ANWR) and ramping up nuclear power plants. In mid-January, the President was quoted in the Wall Street Journal as pushing for an Energy Bill and stating nuclear power was a necessity to solve this problem. Now, aside that LNG tanker ports, nuclear power plants and nuclear repositories are the biggest terrorist targets around — and human-error in operating, transporting fuels and wastes from these facilities could also bring untold damage – these new policy directions bring many risks to the American public and ratepayers. The lack of balanced information creates unbalanced policies – and the point of this article is to provide some unsolicited advice to the new Secretary of Energy and the new NREL Director. While I have no illusions that these points will be listened to, it might be a useful time for those involved to reflect on the ‘public purpose’ of these jobs and the immense responsibility they actually entail. For the new Energy Secretary a guiding principle should be, “more might be better”, that is, if US taxpayers, ratepayers, and businesses have greater choices in energy supply and use – they can make their own decisions. While the ‘Washington Beltway” experts wish to pigeon-hole energy choices into nice, neat columns with large infrastructure costs and long term price tags, other options exist such as energy efficiency, clean distributed technologies, and renewable energy that can be achieved in more modular bites without the corresponding risks of supply cut-offs and terrorist strikes. There’s no question that the senior Administration and Congressional advisors don’t want to hear the expanded options — the Secretary of Energy’s job is to continually bring these options to the table for consideration. For the new NREL Director, national laboratories should not be support contractors – there are enough private sector firms who can do that job quite nicely, thank you. While NREL has won its share of DOE R&D 100 awards, the laboratory still has yet to achieve the respect and reputation so deserving of one of the world’s largest premier research institutions that is totally dedicated to energy efficiency and renewable energy technology development. This respect and reputation doesn’t come without some hard work and risks where solid study and technology validation might result in conclusions that are not yet accepted as the norm. But in all theaters of science and technology, the areas least expected or conclusions least anticipated, have in many cases won the day. Such a tact is never loved by bureaucracies or politicians, but in both the stews of the policy and business marketplaces – good ideas, research and technologies float to the top – generally the best results of both democracy and capitalism. The challenge to both Dr. Bodman and Dr. Arvizu goes to the core of their Ph.D’s and professionalism — don’t get hoodwinked by the old policy game of great packaging, but no substance. For instance, the newly-released National Commission report has been touted by the media as ‘new ideas’ by a ‘new coalition’, when in fact, the ideas are status quo: $10 billion of investments for ‘clean coal’ and nuclear, and $1.5 billion for renewables with results 20 years from now. While the headlines are catchy, the substance is more of the same, this basic group of energy insiders had hoped to follow the cereal-makers approach in marketing, with ‘New and Improved’ on the box, but actually less cereal inside. The other more important challenge is to encourage real dialogue with diverse constituencies. Many of the hearings and DOE roadmap exercises are very well meaning – but encourage an “insiders’ game” rather than pulling newer, better, more efficient ideas and practices out of the process. As we all know, supreme knowledge doesn’t emanate from inside the Washington Beltway nor the ‘Halls of the Traditional Energy Suppliers’ – otherwise our world would be awash with low cost, reliable, and clean energy resources. We know that’s not the case, and will take many approaches, technologies, and investments to move our country and the planet into a better situation. And finally, welcome to your new jobs and we can only hope you approach the responsibility not as a political chess game but as a true public trust – where at the end of your period of service the US public has not been yet again opiated on just a few other short term energy options but on a portfolio of non-interruptible, cost-stabilized, clean energy solutions for the United States and the world. About the author… Scott Sklar serves as President of a strategic marketing and policy firm since 2000 and served simultaneously for 15 years as Executive Director of the Solar Energy industries Association and the National BioEnergy Industries Association in Washington, DC after serving 9 years in the US Senate for Senator Jacob Javits (NY). He lives in a solar home in Arlington, Virginia and can be reached at solarsklar@aol.com.
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