Chu: DOE Taking Lead on Renewables, Looking for the Next Bell Labs

Steven Chu EIA conference

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“You know that famous expression: ‘ET phone home’? Well, we want ET – environmental technology – to return home." – Steven Chu

In 1948, scientists working at Bell Telephone Laboratories ran the first demonstration of a tiny device that would dramatically change the future of technology. The phone giant’s scientists had already developed silicon detectors for wartime radars and patented photovoltaic technology. This time, Bell was searching for a better vacuum tube to amplify speech waves through its phone lines. It put its scientists to work, and they emerged with the first transistor and a future Nobel Prize.

That level of dedication to innovation, research and development is what the energy sector needs today to transition to a low-carbon future, Energy Secretary Steven Chu told a conference this morning in Washington. Unfortunately, he said,

“Is there a Bell Labs in renewables today? Well, no.”

Instead, energy companies worldwide that could be making substantial investments in developing renewable energy for their own benefit and the world’s are dropping their R&D support.

BP, still touting itself as “Beyond Petroleum,” announced last week that it was cutting a quarter of its solar workforce, including 140 jobs in Maryland. Shell went cold on renewables in March, announcing that it was shutting down its solar and wind work and shifting that focus to developing biofuels and carbon capture and storage.

The loss of investment in the sector, both from corporations and from U.S. investors worried about the economy, is troubling from an economic perspective as well as a climate perspective.

The more that research and development teams are able to deploy new technologies and improve upon them, the more they drive down the costs of those technologies.

European and Chinese wind turbine manufacturers, for example, have been able to drive wind power toward a level where it will be competitive with natural gas, Chu noted. Solar isn’t there yet, but Chu believes that once the technological processes for mass producing photovoltaics are widespread enough to drive the prices down, solar will play a major – if not the major – role.

Like those wind turbines, much of the renewable energy equipment used in the U.S. today is designed and manufactured abroad, though that is beginning to change as states like Iowa and Michigan embrace renewable energy industries.

President Obama has said repeatedly that he wants home-grown, American ingenuity to lead the way, and Chu echoed those words today, saying it’s time for environmentally friendly energy technology to return home.

Until the industry recognizes how much it has to gain by stepping up the way Bell Labs did, Chu said, the DOE will be leading the way – engaging the intellectual horsepower of its 17 national labs, which have claimed 88 Nobel Prize winners over the years.

The DOE’s shift away from business as usual in the energy sector and toward devlopment for a low-carbon world was clear in the agenda of the Energy Information Administration’s annual conference, starting with the title: A New Climate for Energy.

“The new 800 pound gorilla in the room is climate change,” Chu told the group. Reducing carbon emissions so CO2 levels don’t rise about 500 parts per million “is something we simply have to do.”

While renewable energy sources and storage capabilities are being developed, Chu believes nuclear energy must play a role as a base-load electricity source. Nuclear has its problems with waste and weapons proliferation, but it’s a technology that is available today. “Until we can capture and sequester the carbon from coal” – a technology that is likely decades from widescale deployment – nuclear is a necessity," Chu said.

He is also looking at biomass and improving conversion processes using such feedstocks as algae and yeast munching on simple sugars to create carbon-free jet fuel and diesel for big polluters like today’s heavy trucks.

In Chu’s view, the immediate way to begin reducing greenhouse gas emissions is one the president already called for in the stimulus package – energy efficiency. Chu sees huge potential in U.S. technology providing the information feedback and timing consumers need to cut back their energy consumption. He eventually wants to see electricity storage through vehicle batteries and integrated building systems that make the buildings smart enough to automatically tune themselves for energy efficiency.

While Congress considers how to incentivize renewable energy development, Chu and the Energy Department’s scientists will be plunging in. Obama called for a doubling of their R&D budget, and there is no time to waste.