On June 2nd, nine House Republican representatives signed on to a letter to the House Subcommittee on Energy and Water Development requesting, among other things, that federal funding for the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) be terminated because, “They have failed to live up to their supposed potential”.
“We should not follow the president’s poor planning,” continued the letter—penned by California US Rep. Tom McClintock, “ in increasing the funding for these anti-energy boondoggles.”
If you’ve been following my blog, then you already know that NREL is the only national laboratory dedicated to renewable energy and energy efficiency research and development. The lab is also one of the biggest supporters of the SunShot Initiative, the DOE plan to enhance research and development of solar technologies with the ultimate goal of bringing costs down to $1 per watt.
One of the biggest arguments against wide-scale adoption of renewable energy has been the current gap between the cost of implementation and a quantifiable return on that investment via reduced energy expenses. Reducing the cost of solar to $1 per watt would fundamentally change that dynamic. It would also lead to an increase in energy efficiency.
In fact, Southern California Edison (SCE) is already preparing to capitalize on the opportunity presented by a successful implementation of the SunShot Initiative. SCE currently delivers more renewable power than any other utility in the country. In her presentation at the Santa Barbara Summit on Energy Efficiency, Lynda Ziegler, the Executive Vice President of Power Delivery Services for SCE, emphasized the impact of the SunShot Initiative, stating unequivocally that reducing the cost of renewable energy implementation will increase accessibility, because although the demand for solar, wind, and other clean energy resources exist, wide-scale adoption will only be possible once we, “figure out how to make it work in a cost-effective way.”
But renewable energy innovation is only part of NREL’s roster. The laboratory is also involved in the modernization of our current electrical grid as part of its overall goal to reduce oil use to 15% of current levels while also cutting CO2 emissions to les than 80% of the current numbers by 2050. NREL plans to achieve those goals by helping with the creation of a “Smart Green Grid.”
At the Santa Barbara Summit, Steve Hauser, VP of Grid Integration for NREL warned that, “achieving this vision requires a strong, technical foundation to enable effective integration and operation of renewable energy and energy efficiency technologies, along with other clean energy resources, in systems of all scales.”
Hauser also cautioned that the complex informational and data demands of a smart grid mean that, “going forward, the system has to look very different, enabling us to move from a megabyte world to a pedobyte world and beyond.”
It seems strange to label the reduction of CO2 emissions, easing our dependence on fossil fuels and working to decrease the cost (while simultaneously increasing the efficiency) of renewable energy as some sort of “anti-energy boondoggle.” If these congressmen support the notion of disavowing the work of the NREL, does that mean that they in turn support funding programs that would increase CO2 emission (or maintain the status quo), solidify our dependence on fossil fuels, and increase the cost of clean energy technologies? Or are they really arguing that the government should not be responsible for defraying the R&D costs associated with programs like the SunShot Initiative?
If we lean towards the latter justification, then what these congressmen are really implying is that the US should continue to occupy a low-ranking position in the global line-up of industrial nations that are embracing (and copiously funding) cleaner, more efficient energy sources. Two decades ago, the US commanded a 50% share of the global solar market. In the last 20 years, the country has seen that market share diminish rapidly and now the nation commands a mere 5% of global market share in annual PV production (2009) and 8% of installed PV (2008). In contrast, Europe is responsible for about 80% of global deployment (with Germany leading the way), while the Chinese government is racing to take the lead: In 2010, private and public funding contributed more than $54.4 billion to the clean energy sector, helping the nation hit the number one spot in the world in terms of clean energy investment.
The good news is, US solar companies are growing and improving exponentially. According to Ryne Raffaele (Director, National Center for Photovoltaics, National Renewable Energy Laboratory), US solar companies should be able to meet national and global demand because the will and the talent are there. “The only limiting effect is that they can’t grow fast enough,” claims Raffaele, pointing out that it’s public monies that can make the difference. “Solar incentives have played a part in fueling explosive growth in solar technologies domestically.” (http://www.distributedenergy.com/blogs/de-editors-blog/the-sunshot-initiative-80833.aspx)
So what do you think? Considering that other nations are more than willing to write the checks and supply the money needed to grow and modernize their energy infrastructure in order to utilize renewable energy and capitalize on the benefits associated with the ever-increasing efficiency of clean energy technologies, should the US even entertain the notion of defunding NREL and its brethren? What about the rewards we are still reaping from other, public funded, scientific, and technological innovations like the space program and the Internet—were those benefits overrated or, in retrospect, quite necessary? And isn’t the question not should we be spending money on energy efficiency and renewable resources, but can we even afford to debate the necessity of investing in a cleaner, brighter, more efficient energy future?