DOE basks in plaudits on the Hill for national lab research

Source: Umair Irfan, E&E reporter • Posted: Friday, April 22, 2016

Officials from the Department of Energy took a victory lap yesterday after the Senate passed the first energy bill in nine years and world leaders prepared to sign a climate accord that could help double America’s clean energy spending.

In a packed room on Capitol Hill, DOE hosted National Laboratory Science Day, with scientists from the department’s 17 laboratories across the country presenting their research to lawmakers with hands-on demos and presentations.

Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz received a warm reception from legislators from both parties for his pitch for more money for the national labs. Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.) pledged support for Mission Innovation, an agreement among 20 countries to double clean energy research and development spending over the next five years.

The initiative was enacted ahead of the international climate agreement crafted in Paris last year that world leaders will formally sign into force tomorrow in New York.

“We’re all in with you,” Cantwell told Moniz. “These are a lot of advances that play into the everyday lives of people across the United States of America.”

Shadowed by Reps. Bill Foster (D-Ill.), Chuck Fleishmann (R-Tenn.) and Randy Hultgren (R-Ill.), whose districts include or are adjacent to DOE national laboratories, Moniz toured the exhibits in the room with a spring in his step.

“Not every member is as fortunate as we are to have labs in our district,” Hultgren said. “I am convinced more than ever, as I go around today, that our future is bright.”

Some of the work on display included giant quantum dots for LEDs. Jennifer Hollingsworth, a researcher at the Los Alamos National Laboratory, demonstrated how different coatings using this technology alter the bright blue light from LEDs, changing the quality and color of the illumination.

“What we do is add our red-emitting quantum dots to that conventional yellow phosphor, so now we have blue plus red plus yellow makes white,” Hollingsworth said. “It makes a nice, warmer white.”

Across the room, researchers displayed a white plastic-foam wedge with antennas sticking out and a propeller on one end. The device is an unmanned flying sensor platform for measuring clouds, a major uncertainty in many climate models, explained Mark Ivey, a scientist at the Sandia National Laboratories.

“We flew this kind of UAV recently in Alaska, where we’re trying to implement routine measurements up on the North Slope,” Ivey said. “In the Arctic, there are clouds that are mixed-phase with water and ice, and that has a big impact on energy budgets [for the atmosphere].”

The argument for securing energy and climate research dollars is critical now that the Obama administration is in its last year of office and questions hang over the future of its initiatives. Some lawmakers have greeted the new spending proposals with hostility, and others remain skeptical about climate change itself.

“Outside of the people in this room, people do not really understand the power and the intelligence and the capability our labs have to drive our economy forward, our manufacturing forward,” said MaryAnn Wright, group vice president for engineering and product development at Johnson Controls Inc. “We should not have to be begging for funding to solve the kinds of challenges that we have and the kinds of things that industry needs.”

While the technology advances, officials need to take steps to ensure that progress doesn’t regress when a new administration takes office, Moniz observed earlier in the day.

“I think we have the technologies in hand combined with good policy,” he said. “I think what we will eventually need is an economywide approach to carbon reductions and a legislative approach.”

Right now, however, the Obama administration’s signature climate policy, the Clean Power Plan, is on hold as state lawsuits work their way through the courts. Moniz said his department is nonetheless plowing through with its work to facilitate the carbon rules.

“We have not in any way pulled back from providing, for example, technical assistance to states to keep developing their state or regional plans,” he said. “We feel quite confident about that.”