Editor’s Comments: Is This Our Sputnik Moment?

Be Bug Web

By Elizabeth Cutright

It’s clear that other nations are more than willing to write the checks and supply the money needed to grow and modernize their energy infrastructure (www.nytimes.com/2011/06/09/business/09subsidies.html?_r=2&nl=). Around the world, renewable energy and clean energy technologies are not looked at askance-or accused of somehow “boondoggling” the general public, as nine Republican law makers charged in a letter penned by California US Rep. Tom McClintock in June of this year. Instead, international adoption of renewable energy and energy efficiency technologies is reaping big rewards for countries like Germany and India, who are committed to finding a way to generate clean energy while also reducing demand and weaning themselves from dependence on foreign oil.

“We have the solutions, but the cost can be prohibitive.” That was the comment I heard over and over again, as each presenter at the annual Santa Barbara Summit on Energy Efficiency took the stage to describe where we’re at and we’re headed, in terms of energy efficiency, reliability, and security. The overall theme of the summit was that while we all know that research and development will play a significant role in shaping our energy future, as a nation we find ourselves struggling to find-and justify-funding this new energy revolution.

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And lest you think this is an overstatement, heed the words of Bill Brinkman, Director for the Office of Science at the US DOE, who laid out exactly what is at stake in terms of funding energy innovation: “Two years ago, I said we needed to reach a level of research and development we haven’t seen since the height of the Space Race. This is our generation’s Sputnik moment.”

But instead of pouring the same support (and cold hard cash) into energy innovation that we once committed to the space race, we seem to be mired in a swamp of confusion, conflagration, and conflicting points of view. While it’s sometimes hard to understand-or justify the expense of-new energy innovations, it’s also disconcerting to witness such a disconnect between reality and subterfuge: especially when it come to opponents of renewable energy and the entrenched traditional interests who would be most happy maintaining the status quo.

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Renewable energy must overcome the twin obstacles of cost and reliability in order to slip easily into the role of main power provider. Which is why programs like the SunShot Initiative are so important. The purpose of the SunShot Initiative is to accelerate and advance current DOE solar energy research efforts in order to “make large-scale solar energy systems cost competitive without subsidies by the end of the decade.” The ultimate goal: pricing solar power down to $1 per watt.

But renewable and clean energy technologies are only half of the equation.  In order to meet future demands, we must find a way to reduce and adjust our current energy-use paradigm. And the way to do that is through increased efficiency. The Smart Green Grid Initiative, which will make it possible for the grid to be “dynamically optimized at all times,” is the first step towards a more efficient energy infrastructure. The Smart Green Grid’s potential lies specifically in its ability to increase efficiency while also enabling energy users to customize demand based on available energy resources (and their associated costs). Finally, the Smart Green Grid will capitalize on interconnected, closed-loop systems (based on current IT models), further increasing stability, while also allowing for easy addition of distributed resources so that, in the words of Chris Knudson, Director, Technology Innovation Center, PG&E, “electricity flows on the grid become more dynamic and complex.”

Earlier this year, President Barack Obama presented a $29.5-billion budget request for funding of nuclear and renewable energy technologies, including $2.36 billion for the Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy. And while that funding represents an almost 5% increase from last year’s allocation, it’s not nearly enough-especially when compared to China, which recently committed more than $54 billion dollars (some private, most public) to energy efficiency and innovation. And while the President is attempting to commit little more than half of what China is investing, it’s unlikely that the $29.5 billion will stand, as Republican lawmakers have vowed to pass a budget with less federal funding for energy efficiency and innovation in order to “promot[e] policy rooted in innovation and the entrepreneurial strength of American business.”

At the Summit, Paul De Martini, VP CTO Connected Energy Group, Cisco warned the audience that when it comes to clean tech and future energy demands, “This is a zero sum game.

“We are coming up against the fact that there’s a winner and loser,” he said. “How do we begin to think differently about monetizing this value so that the investments get made?” 

Elizabeth Cutright is a previous editor of Business Energy.

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