The Energy Department helped start a revolution – and doesn’t know who to hand it off to

Source: By Chris Mooney, Washington Post • Posted: Wednesday, December 21, 2016

An array of solar panels are seen in Oakland, Calif. (Reuters/Lucy Nicholson)

As the Obama administration prepares to leave office, it is seeking to underscore just how much has changed in the last eight years in the way we get energy — and to take some credit for it.

Since 2008, costs for wind and solar have plunged by 40 and 60 percent, respectively, according to an analysis provided by the Energy Department. That’s even as the United States has installed 100 gigawatts, or billion watts, of generating capacity in the two technologies combined (75 gigawatts of wind, 25 of solar).

Meanwhile, we now have 500,000 electric vehicles on the road, thanks largely to a 70 percent drop in battery costs. The federal government can’t take credit for all of this (industry invested too, states also promoted renewable energy, and so on), but it helped drive much of it through research investments over decades, said David Friedman, the Energy Department’s acting assistant secretary for energy efficiency and renewable energy.

“The Department of Energy has really changed the world when it comes to energy, and that’s part of a global competition that’s underway,” said Friedman. He spoke to the Post to preview remarks he planned to deliver Monday in Chicago at an event being put on by the Clean Energy Trust, the Chicago Council of Global Affairs, and Business Forward.

“Electric vehicles, we can take very I think direct credit for the lithium ion battery of today,” Friedman added. “That core chemistry…was developed and improved at Argonne National Labs through DOE funding.”

Department of Energy, based on the 2016 Revolution Now report.

But the timing for this message, which overlaps heavily with a report that the Department released shortly before the 2016 election, couldn’t be more challenging. In a month, a new administration will take over, guided by a president who talked extensively on the campaign trail about reviving the glory days of fossil fuels.

The transition has already been a painful one at the Energy Department in particular. A questionnaire revealed by the press showed that the Trump transition team had not only asked the agency for the names of career staffers who had worked on Obama climate policies, but also seemed to hint at plans to cut the department’s funding.

One question asked, “If DOE’s topline budget … were required to be reduced 10% over the next four fiscal years [does] the Department have any recommendations as to where those reductions should be made?”

Another asked, “What is the Department’s role with respect to the development of offshore wind?” This technology, the next step for ramping up wind energy in the United States, is finally arriving in this country at a time when the next president has been particularly critical of offshore wind farms, having battled them in Scotland.

The U.S.’s first offshore wind farm, in Rhode Island, just became operational last week and in a massive auction, the Norway-based oil major Statoil set a new record by laying down nearly $ 42.5 million on a bid for a huge offshore area off the coast of New York. It was “the highest bid ever for a U.S. offshore wind energy area,” according to the American Wind Energy Association.

“We believe that the area that we have now leased…has the potential to develop more than 1 gigawatt of offshore wind, which is a sizeable offshore wind park,” said Irene Rummelhoff, Statoil’s executive vice president for New Energy Solutions. “The biggest ones in Europe are about that size.”

While this type of slow greening of the U.S. energy system should continue no matter who is president, it’s less clear if the clean energy research investments that Friedman hails will remain a priority at the federal level — or if, instead, countries like China and Germany will take the next steps. (The Energy Department invested $ 2.4 billion in wind energy technology research from 1976 through 2014.)

Under Trump, the Department of Energy is set to be run by former Texas Republican governor Rick Perry, who once argued that the department shouldn’t exist — and yet is credited with a wind industry expansion in Texas on his watch. Still, there are fears that his nomination suggests a realignment of department priorities towards fossil fuels and away from renewables.

It remains unclear how closely the vision implied by the memo, attributable to the Energy Department transition team rather than the incoming secretary, will also match Perry’s approach.

But already, one point of sharp contrast is clear. Under Obama, the department was run by two scientists — Steven Chu and Ernest Moniz. In contrast, Perry is a politician who has repeatedly questioned a fundamental scientific reality — human-caused climate change.

Friedman, in the interview, strongly defended the career Energy employees who were viewed as being targeted in the memo.

“Energy efficiency, and being competitive in manufacturing, have been bipartisan issues for decades, and it has been the career employees who’ve continued pushing these technologies forward,” he said. “The people who are going to be there on January 21 are the people who…have been the true engines behind all this progress.”

And indeed, there is a broad U.S. bipartisan tradition — not only at the Department of Energy — of the federal government investing in scientific research, and then watching as the resulting technologies take root in this country and stoke new industries.

Yet it’s just unclear how much this matters to Donald Trump, who has not yet named a White House science adviser.

“While the men tapped by the president-elect to run Energy, Interior and EPA have expressed doubts about the reality of human-caused climate change, there are hundreds of scientists in their agencies who can offer them expert advice,” said Neal Lane, a physicist at Rice University who served as a science adviser to President Bill Clinton. “But the president, who has said he has an ‘open mind’ on the subject, needs his own science adviser to help him devise a climate policy strategy.”

Friedman, an Obama appointee, was unabashed in making an argument that echoes one Hillary Clinton made in her losing campaign — if we don’t keep making the scientific and applied research investments to push green technologies forward, other countries will and they’ll eat our lunch.

“We’re facing a fundamental question in this country,” said Friedman. “Are we going to invest in the technologies that have been revolutionizing the world of energy, and that other countries are waking up to and investing in, or are we going to let that multi-trillion dollar opportunity slip by? And we’re not going to know the answer until post January 20th.”