November 15, 2010

Department of Energy support for cleantech shakey

It remains unclear just what will propel the country's energy policy.

The midterm elections made it harder to push ahead. The department has used up most of the stimulus money. And with the big federal budget deficit, many critics say the department's grants and loans amount to subsidies for renewable energy that shouldn't be extended. Tough publicity lies ahead when some of the beneficiaries, such as new battery or solar-panel manufacturers, inevitably fail - if there were no risk of failure, private money would step up. The first grant recipient, a solar firm, has already delayed some plans.

"We're looking very hard at what would bring [solar-power costs] down by a factor of four," Chu says. "I'm confident that we can reduce it by a factor of two. The last factor of two will be much harder."

In the meantime, many people are judging the energy portions of the stimulus programs on the basis of jobs. Obama has turned to it time and again. A Council of Economic Advisers report in July said nearly 200,000 jobs had been created, impressive in the context of the renewable-energy industry but small when measured against the huge economy.

The bigger picture on climate change is cloudy, too.

The Obama administration's push for climate legislation has hit a brick wall in the Senate. Many lawmakers favored legislation that would have raised the price of oil and coal to discourage their use and make renewable energy more competitive; Chu belongs to that camp. Other lawmakers oppose higher fossil fuel prices, saying it will hurt manufacturers and consumers.

Chu - who lacked the political skills of earlier energy secretary Bill Richardson or the Washington policy stature of Carter-era secretary James R. Schlesinger - has played a minor role in the administration's climate-change efforts. His support for expanding nuclear power has put off many environmentalists who back his renewable agenda. And he has alienated the oil and coal industries as well - he once called coal his "worst nightmare."

His biggest disappointment, he says, is that "two or three years ago I thought America and the world was really going to break forward and recognize that climate change is important, and now they are backtracking on that. The world economic recession has something to do with that, but the people who are against [climate action] have also tried to muddy the waters."

The physicist sees a clear connection between addressing climate change and U.S. economic interests.


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