DoE Secretary Steven Chu: We Need Nobel-Level Breakthroughs

Secretary of Energy Steven Chu
Secretary of Energy Steven Chu

Yesterday the New York Times published an interview (including some of the original audio) with our new Energy Secretary, Steven Chu. Among other comments, he said that to address the climate emergency, we need “Nobel-level breakthroughs” in several key areas – batteries, biofuels, and solar photovoltaics.” As an illustration, he pointed out:

The photovoltaics we have today, … without subsidy, and without even the additional cost of storage, it’s about a factor of five higher than electricity generation by gas or coal. Suppose someone comes along and invents a way of getting … solar photovoltaics at one fifth the cost, so you don’t even think about subsidies anymore. You just slap it everywhere… That, in my opinion, would take something, which I would say, is a bit of a breakthrough.”

There’s no arguing with that idea – if solar PV were five times cheaper, no one would need complicated “payback period” models to justify installing it. (Luckily, we do have those models, and so some people are taking the plunge.)

Of course, this is just the story of how technologies advance – it’s very familiar from the rise of semiconductors. A technology needs an ever-expanding “feedstock” of innovations, discoveries, and breakthroughs to grow at an exponential rate. In semiconductors, the history of technologies such as FET, MOS, CMOS, new clean room techniques, different types of lithography, and many other innovations each offered ever decreasing feature size and lower cost. This parade of innovations combined to ensure that just when one technology was reaching its limit of compactness, another newer and more efficient technology would be there to take its place. When the new one ran out of steam the cycle would repeat. (And several of those innovations resulted in Nobels.)

One example of the “old thinking” on PV is the projections about its availability and cost. Many of these projections assume a linear improvement in price/performance. To help save the world, the price/performance of solar electricity and batteries and efficiency and fuel cells must come down faster than the typical, linear projections – just as it did for semiconductors.

Luckily, despite a current dip in investment and research levels due to the economy, this is happening in the solar photovoltaics domain. [intlink id=”210″ type=”post”]New[/intlink] [intlink id=”218″ type=”post”]discoveries[/intlink], new manufacturing methods, and [intlink id=”66″ type=”post”]new thinking[/intlink] will continue to drive the price down. With luck, Chu’s support from his bully pulpit in the DoE can accelerate this process.

Hat tip to Watthead for turning me on to this interview.

Green Building Salon – A Few Conclusions

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Perception is reality when it comes to green energy (image by striatic, CC 2.0 license)

I was thinking about what we accomplished/learned at our initial green building/green energy salon a few days ago, and came up with a few top candidates:

  • Liability – this is one of the biggest issues at the front of mind for builders and architects – they have to guarantee their buildings, and that makes them very wary of new technologies. One big challenge for green building will be coming up with ways to break through that barrier (the other alternative, of course, is to wait long enough that the new technologies prove themselves – but even this needs to be optimized). For example, perhaps the government could help take on some of the liability to reduce the risk for architects and builders trying to do the right thing.
  • Perception – Silicon Valley, as one of the attendees pointed out, is way ahead of the rest of the nation in terms of our perception that “green is just an obvious thing to do.” The general idea that green is more expensive or that it requires privation is much more prevalent. So a big challenge for the green movement is to change that perception, which is a combination of both marketing (the next topic) as well as changes in the way green is delivered. Simple changes (see my CSA “box of veggies” post, for example) can make a huge difference in perceptions.
  • Marketing – half of us at the salon were high tech marketers. Green technology is a classic high-tech marketing problem. We’re facing a “chasm” that we need to get across. There’s a technology adoption lifecycle in green building just as there is in new IT technologies. Of course, that’s one of the things that we here in Silicon Valley are pretty good at (we wrote the book on it :-). So one good set of steps to move forward will be to articulate a “Crossing the Chasm” kind of analysis of green, and figure out where our “beackheads” are, and how to get a “tornado” going.

Most of the news about green energy and climate change focuses on the big multi-million dollar technical projects, scientific breakthroughs, and “parts per million.” But as we discovered at our salon, there is a lot of “ground-level” work that has to be done at the same time – whether it’s to remove obstacles for builders to build green, or to help consumers understand they can save money and get better services and, oh by the way, save a lot of energy at the same time.

Avoiding The Cliff Ahead

Uluwatu Temple, Bali (HDR)
A cliff in Bali (image by seanmcgrath, CC 2.0 licensed)

My green building and blogging colleague Barry Katz just had a post about James Howard Kunstler on his The Future Is Green Blog. Kunstler is one of the “dystopians” featured in a  New Yorker article last week. Kunstler is not sanguine about what the future is going to look like for us and our descendants. He thinks that not only is global warming likely to cause a disaster, but so is the current, or an upcoming, financial meltdown. Barry writes:

In his view, anything short of ending our dependence on cars for personal transportation is a doomed enterprise.

In his blog ClusterF**k nation, Kunstler writes:

I’ve been skeptical of the “stimulus” as sketched out so far, aimed at refurbishing the infrastructure of Happy Motoring. To me, this is the epitome of a campaign to sustain the unsustainable — since car-dependency is absolutely the last thing we need to shore up and promote.

Could the terrible things he predicts happen? In the New Yorker interview he provides as an example and a warning the famous fall of the Roman Empire – the city of Rome itself went from a population of over one million in 100 AD to less than 50,000 in a little over 400 years. And there certainly have been many other similar collapses in history – even in pre-Columbian North America there were multiple population collapses due to resource overuse (and genocide, but that’s another topic).

The difference today – at least we hope – is that we have some Cassandras – Al Gore, Kunstler, the IPCC, me and Barry Katz, among many others – warning us, and we have the means and opportunity to take the warning. The question is, do we have the will to put the pedal to the metal to address the problems? For me, I see that as doing the following, and doing it much faster than anyone is actually predicting is possible today:

  • Immediately stop wasting energy – this means getting our houses and commercial buildings more efficient, both new and existing ones; getting more efficient cars on the road
  • Build out utility scale renewable energy as fast as humanly possible
  • Develop and commercialize technologies for distributed energy generation (e.g., photovoltaic roof panels and paint, mini-wind turbines, ground source heat pumps) and get them cheap enough to deploy everywhere
  • Develop and commercialize technologies for distributed energy storage – effective energy storage is one of the key sticking points for my vision of zero net energy homes and for accelerating the decline of traditional power plants
  • Figure out a way, or several ways, to get some of the CO2 back out of the atmosphere – reforestation is a start (and can make a significant difference, according to this study)
  • Finally, make structural changes to the rules and incentives of life so people will work closer to where they live, will be able to take public transit in a reasonable way, choose to build highly efficient homes not because its the right thing to do, but because it’s the law, or there are other concrete benefits, and so that businesses will find it’s profitable to save the world – whether it’s through being more efficient themselves, or by helping the rest of us “do the right thing”

I call this blog “Keeping The Lights On” because I am optimistic that we’ll figure out how to have a decent life without CO2, that we’ll figure out how to keep the oceans from rising too much and losing too many species, and that civilization won’t collapse due to a financial crisis in the meantime. There are a lot of hurdles to be leapt to accomplish this, and many of them will be costly – but that means that someone’s going to make some money on them, so there will be incentives. And that’s the other half of the title – “Profitable Applications” – business can drive this transition, for profit. The big challenge is getting business ramped up fast enough to save our butts – I think it can happen, and even with the economy in its current sad state, we’re still seeing hopeful signs.

Well, that’s a couple of pages full of assertion and conjecture – I’d love to hear your thinking on this.

Obama’s Commitment To Green Buildings

A hole in the ground waiting to become a building (image by extranoise, CC 2.0 licensed)

Obama has a lot of plans, as shown on, his public website. But one of his points, on the Urban Policy page, is the following:

Use Innovative Measures to Dramatically Improve Efficiency of Buildings: Buildings account for nearly 40 percent of carbon emissions in the United States today and carbon emissions from buildings are expected to grow faster than emissions from other major parts of our economy. It is expected that 15 million new buildings will be constructed between today and 2015. President Obama and Vice President Biden will work with cities so that we make our new and existing buildings more efficient consumers of electricity.

It’s interesting that one of the most significant parts of his energy plans (buildings use 40% of the energy in the U.S., so this could have a giant affect on our country’s energy use) is in this Urban Policy section. I assume this is because of the “green jobs” aspect of building green. Tradespeople jobs are a great way out of poverty, and we’re going to need a lot of new tradespeople, with new skills, to transform the housing and commercial building stock to be highly efficient.

Want Obama To Take Action On Energy? Vote At Change.Org

Idea! (photo by brunkfordbraun, CC 2.0 license)

Keeping The Lights On (this blog) just endorsed, and I voted for, an “Idea For Change In America” at, Obama’s community website. The idea is “Develop & Implement a National Strategy for Sustainability.”

Ideas for Change in America is a nationwide competition to identify the best ideas for change in America. The top 10 ideas will be presented to the Obama administration just before inauguration day and form the basis of a nationwide advocacy campaign to turn each idea into actual policy.

This idea is currently running 11th, but in any case I think, and hope, that this is a foregone conclusion – I believe Obama is going to go after sustainability and related goals in a big way, no matter how many votes it ends up getting. But additional votes can’t hurt. You can vote for up to ten of these “ideas for change” – it’s worth taking a look.

Zero Net Energy Homes Part 3 – The Federal R&D Agenda

A House
House, ready to become zero net energy (Image by Panoramas, CC 2.0 licensed)

In October 2008, a number of federal government departments and research organizations collaborated to produce the Federal R&D Agenda for Net Zero Energy High Performance Green Buildings (PDF). It’s a fascinating document, its origins driven primarily in response to two energy policy laws passed in 2005 and 2007 (during the Bush administration). In particular, the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007 (EISA 2007) created an Office of Commercial High Performance Green Buildings and a consortium on a Zero Net Energy Commercial Buildings Initiative. This consortium produced the R&D agenda.

The EISA 2007 act also includes a $250 million program that the DOE and other agencies are administering with the goal of “all new commercial buildings to be so efficient in energy consumption and in on-site renewable energy generation that they offset any energy use from the grid,” part of the Energy Independence & Security Act (EISA) of 2007 passed by Congress and signed by President Bush last year.

Noting that buildings represent about 40% of U.S. energy use, and 40% of our greenhouse gas emissions, the report says:

Buildings present one of the best opportunities to economically reduce energy consumption and limit greenhouse gases.

And we already have in hand technology and techniques to get a good start on this:

From an energy perspective along, high performance building technologies can already reduce building net energy consumption on average by 30-50%. New technologies to achieve net-zero energy – buildings that over a period of time produce as much energy as they consume – must be developed and integrated holistically into building design to make buildings more self-sufficient.

For the remaining 50% of the job, the report defines six areas of research and development that are needed:

  • Improving our ability to measure the performance of buildings, and design integration

    Credible performance measures, combined with tools, performance data, and design guidelines, will create market demand for emerging building energy technologies, economies of scale, and reduced capital costs.Designing for effective daylighting, ventilation, and passive solar energy management, for example, could yield energy savings approaching 40%, without advances in individual technology efficiencies.

  • Developing building technologies and strategies to achieve net-zero energy

    Energy-efficient and direct-use renewable energy technologies – in the forms of cost-effective materials, components, subsystems, and construction techniques – still have enormous potential for energy savings at costs lower than acquiring supplies from traditional or renewable power sources. At the same time, renewable power and other supply technologies also have enormous advancement potential.

  • Improving water use and water retention
  • Improving the energy footprint of building materials and building activities
  • Improve occupant health, safety, and productivity
  • Enable these new technologies to be put into use in practice

    Adequate information and communication flows are critical to achieving energy and resource goals. Substantial technology transfer efforts will be required to penetrate all facets of the building and construction sectors.To enable a future where truly integrated design is the rule, rather than the exception, the process by which buildings are planned, designed, constructed, operated, and demolished requires a radical cultural change.

I recommend taking a look at this report – it’s quite interesting reading. As a government-sponsored work, it is naturally somewhat conservative, but even so it holds out a lot of hope – and suggests numerous avenues to pursue – for significantly reducing the energy demand of our commercial and residential buildings in the U.S.

Encourage Obama To Name a Secretary Of Food

Beatiful kale,not from a factory farm (photo by terren in Virginia, CC 2.0 licensed)

Nicholas Kristof in his NY Times op-ed today urges Obama to appoint a Secretary of Food:

A Department of Agriculture made sense 100 years ago when 35 percent of Americans engaged in farming. But today, fewer than 2 percent are farmers. In contrast, 100 percent of Americans eat.

The interests of big agriculture – the “factory farmers” – are really opposed to the interests of people. The “food” they raise wastes energy, causes huge environment damage, makes us unhealthy, and even leads to antibiotic resistant diseases.

On the other hand, real family farmers, who grow non-factory food on relatively small farms, are good for us, good for the environment, and good for our health.

If you feel this is a good cause, check out the online petition at, which calls for a reformist pick for agriculture secretary — and names six terrific candidates, including Chuck Hassebrook, a reformer in Nebraska and Fred Kirschenmann, an organic farmer and researcher in Pocantico Hills, NY.

For more on food policy and its relation to health, environment, and policy, check out Michael Pollan’s “Open Letter To The Next Farmer In Chief” in the October 12 New York Times Magazine. Eye-opening and inspiring, like all of his work.

Deutsche Bank Confirms Green Energy Creates Jobs and Economic Growth

home with free electricity
Available: Home with free electric (photo by Kainet, CC 2.0 Sharealike license)

From MIT’s Technology Review comes this column from Kevin Bullis, about a recent report from Deutsche Bank on the economic benefits of investing in new energy projects:

It argues that it’s possible to address challenges related to climate change, energy security, and the financial crisis at the same time by investing in four specific areas: energy-efficient buildings, electric power grids, renewable power, and public transportation. The report cites figures that suggest investing in these areas creates more jobs than investing in conventional energy sources because much of the old energy infrastructure is already in place. It says that “a $100 billion investment in energy and efficiency would result in 2 million new jobs, whereas a similar investment in old energy [such as coal or natural gas] would only create around 540,000 jobs.”

Of course, Obama has already pledged to do something along these lines, and the blogosphere (including me, here) has chimed in as well. But the imprimatur of Deutsche Bank adds some gravitas to the proposal.

If you want to read the report yourself, it’s here.

Both Sides Essentially Agree in “Economist” Debate – Act Now!

A transmission substation decreases the voltag...Image via Wikipedia

The Economist magazine hosted an online debate earlier this week, on the proposition “We can solve our energy problems with existing technologies today, without the need for breakthrough innovations.”? Speaking in favor of the proposition was Joseph J. Romm, Senior Fellow at the Centre for American Progress. Speaking against was Peter Meisen, President, Global Energy Network Institute.

In my opinion, although Meisen had some good observations of some non-“business as usual” innovations that are needed, the proposition was well-defended by Romm. He argued that not only do we not have time to wait for new breakthroughs in alternative energy, we have enough technology now – solar thermal, efficiency, wind, etc. – that we can address climate change with our current capabilities. He agrees that innovations will be welcome, but they are not required.

First, new breakthrough energy technologies simply don’t enter the market fast enough to have a big impact in the time frame we care about. We need strategies that can get a 5-10% share—or more—of the global market for energy in a quarter century. Second, if you are in the kind of hurry humanity is in, then you are going to have to take unusual measures to deploy technologies far more aggressively than has ever occurred historically.

Bottom line: If we want to preserve the health and well-being of future generations, then focusing government policy and resources on speeding up existing technology deployment is far more important than focusing them on breakthrough technology development.

Meisen actually agreed completely that we need to start now with what we have today in terms of technology. But as I read it, his major point was that we need innovations not in technology, but in policy, thinking, and approach to really solve our climate and energy problems:

We now have more elegant, sophisticated and cleaner ways to generate and deliver electricity for our society. Remaining addicted to fossil fuels is damaging to our environment and bad long term policy. It is unsustainable. Aggressive policies that encourage conservation, energy efficiency, clean transport and linking renewable resources are the new priorities. Flipping our energy paradigm upside down will drive innovation and investment towards a de-carbonised future–and just makes sense..

The bottom line conclusion – get started now with the technology we have (both speakers agree) but direct some of our efforts toward new ways of solving the problem, such as improved policies from our governments (including better cooperation on international electricity transmission).

The entire debate is well worth reading on the Economist web site. They are open for comments, as am I.

(Thanks to for the link to the debate.)

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SD Forum’s Green and Clean Dinner Meeting

The Image via Wikipedia

I attended the SDForum Green and Clean Dinner tonight. The topic was “Where’s the Money?” Five panelists, representing a VC firm, a bank, an angel funding group, a bridge-financing firm, and an entrepreneur who has raised his money independently, discussed the various sources of funding for clean tech companies. i took extensive notes, and will provide more details later, but for now some of the highlights were:

  • Liquidity may be different for clean tech companies than we got used to for high tech companies during the Internet boom
  • Because of the technical risks involved in clean tech, the old venture capital adage of “market first, team second, and product third” often needs to be turned around
  • Especially for power, this is a global market – Europe is at least 15 years ahead of the U.S. in terms of regulations supporting alternative energy and other clean tech
  • There are a lot of entrepreneurs seeking funding – the VC read over 2,400 business plans and funded only 21. The angel investor says one of his biggest problems is “perpetual motion machine” proposals – they have to do a lot of scientific due diligence on the proposals

SDForum’s next Green and Clean event is a breakfast meeting in San Francisco on September 30, focusing on Innovation in Transportation.

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