Inside the Beltway: Chu Seeks “Transformational” Energy Research

By Published On: March 6, 2009

Secretary of Energy Steve Chu laid out his research and development goals for the nation’s energy system to the Senate Energy & Natural Resources Committee March 5. He called for more money, better coordination among universities, national labs, and industry, and “transformational” activities. “We need to do more transformational research at the Department of Energy,” said Chu, “to bring a range of clean energy technologies to the point where the private sector can pick them up.” Chu highlighted five priority areas, including “large scale energy storage systems” for “variable renewable energy sources;” photovoltaic power systems “five times cheaper than today’s;” and computer design tools for commercial and residential buildings that cut energy use 80 percent through investments that amortize themselves within 10 years. In addition, Chu said he wants to focus DOE research on developing cellulosic biofuels for transportation and auto batteries “that can survive 15 years of deep discharges.” To achieve those goals, Chu called for increasing the department’s annual energy research and development budget. He said he would bring a detailed proposal to lawmakers by April. Meanwhile, committee leaders already have drafted an energy research and development bill that would double DOE research funding to $2 billion in 2010 and step it up to $3.2 billion by 2013. The money would come on top of a $1.6 billion infusion for Department of Energy research programs under the recently enacted economic recovery legislation (Circuit, Feb. 20, 2009). “This increase--in my mind anyway--is a necessary one,” remarked Senator Lisa Murkowski (R-AK), ranking minority member of the committee. She also urged Chu to marshal money to support training for future energy sector workers, noting that half of utility industry employees are eligible for retirement within two to five years. Chu agreed that the federal government should help foster new talent. He also pledged to “better integrate national lab, university, and industry research.” As an example, he cited the work done by Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, which he headed until he became secretary of energy. The lab is run by the University of California at Berkeley, which entered into a $500 million research partnership on biofuels with the oil and gas giant BP (Circuit, May 11, 2007).

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