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Five Questions for DOE Secretary Chu (so what has DOE R&D done for you lately?)

“If the guiding agency is less knowledgeable than the system it is trying to guide—and even worse, if its actions necessarily result in further undesired consequences in the working of that system—then what is going on is not planning at all but, rather, blind interference by some agents with the plans of others.”

- Don Lavoie, National Economic Planning: What is Left? (Cambridge: Ballinger Publishing Company, 1985), p. 95.  

 Upon reading the latest letter from the Secretary of the Department of Energy, Stephen Chu, five questions came to mind. Perhaps he, a staffer, or anyone else can provide answers to see just how justified this part of DOE’s mission is during a time of fiscal challenge.

Question #1: Can Secretary Chu spell C-E-N-T-R-A-L  P-L-A-N-N-I-N-G ?

Question #2: If there is “…deep energy expertise within the Department and our national laboratories…” how does one explain the minimal results from the approximately $150 billion (2009$) that has been poured into “energy R&D” (not counting money spent in basic sciences) by DOE and its predecessors?

Question #3: Has an energy technology promoted by DOE ever made it into unsubsidized commercial application?  (Please list)

Question #4: Are the two key assumptions underlying DOE’s energy RD&D efforts — i.e., (i) more spending WILL overcome technology hurdles, and (ii) economies of scale WILL inherently bring down the price so that the technology will be competitive in commercial markets — really justified, recognizing the failure of these assumptions for every “winning” energy technology selected by the federal government during the past 45 years?

Question #5: Starting with 1973, how many different energy technologies have been picked as “winners” by federal officials (Administrations and/or Congress), only to have the technology fall by the wayside because of it proved to be (a) higher in cost, (b) lower in value, (c) technically impractical and/or (d) more environmentally unacceptable than its advocates claimed?  (Please list.) 

The letter that prompted the above queries concerns the call to update the annual DOE-Quadrennial Technology Review (QTR), as recommended by the President’s Council of Advisors on Science & Technology (PCAST).

From: Secretary Chu [mailto:The.Secretary@hq.doe.gov]
Sent: Thursday, March 10, 2011 6:14 PM
Subject: Department of Energy Quadrennial Technology Review

Dear Colleague,

At the end of last month, we released the Department of Energy’s draft Strategic Plan for public comment.  That document speaks to the full breadth of the Department, including the energy, basic science, nuclear security, and environmental cleanup missions and provides an articulation of our management principles.  Additional reports and implementation plans will follow that provide greater detail about how each program line will accomplish our goals.

Our next step in energy will be to develop a DOE-Quadrennial Technology Review (QTR), as recommended by the President’s Council of Advisors on Science & Technology (PCAST).

The DOE-QTR will focus on energy technology innovation and include:

· A description of the country’s current energy landscape, identification of challenges to energy system transformation, and a clear vision of the Department’s goals for energy innovation;

· A discussion of the roles of government, industry, national laboratories, and universities in energy system transformation;

· Roadmaps for advancing key energy technologies, including current status, historical pace of development and market diffusion, their technological potential, factors affecting their market prospects, and research and demonstration milestones;

· Principles by which the Department can judge the priority of various technology efforts; and

· The connections of energy technology innovation to energy policy.

A DOE-QTR will require strong input from many sources both inside and outside of the Administration. It will draw on the deep energy expertise within the Department and our National Laboratories, and we will need your input to establish strong and lasting results. We also plan to engage industry, business, state and local governments, nongovernmental organizations, and consumers as to how the Department can support energy technology innovation that enables energy transformation. The DOE-QTR will create a robust, multi-year energy technology roadmap with integrated views of short-, intermediate-, and long-term energy objectives.

I have asked Steve Koonin, Under Secretary for Science, to lead development of the DOE-QTR. He will announce the additional details of this effort soon.  I have set an aggressive goal of having a draft document delivered to me by this July.  Dr. Koonin’s DOE-QTR team will coordinate closely with the CFO’s Program Analysis & Evaluation team to coordinate data calls and share program responses as we start the formulation of the FY 2013 budget request.  This will help couple the DOE-QTR effort to development of the FY 2013 budget request and minimize the demands on our program offices.

To allow Dr. Koonin to focus on this important task, for the duration of the DOE-QTR project, I am delegating Director of the Office of Science Bill Brinkman to serve in Under Secretary Koonin’s role on several Department-wide executive boards. Dr. Brinkman will take on responsibility for issues coming before the Operations Management Council, the Information Management Governance Council, and the Energy Systems Acquisition Advisory Board.

In keeping with the President’s commitment to transparency, the Department will adopt a policy of posting online all meetings with external parties that specifically discuss the DOE-QTR.  Dr. Koonin will issue more detailed guidance on the transparency process soon.

You’ll be able to follow the QTR project on PowerPedia at https://powerpedia.energy.gov/wiki/DOE-QTR.

We look forward to getting started on this project, which will help move us further down the path towards a clean energy future.

Sincerely,

Steven Chu

3 comments

1 rbradley { 03.15.11 at 11:48 am }

Every summer the Institute for Human Studies has seminars on the science of liberty. What if President Obama, Secretary Chu, John Holdren, etc. devoted a week of their lives to understanding how central planning does not work and undesigned orders emerge and benefit society?

A pipe dream, perhaps, but a thought.

2 Michael Lynch { 03.15.11 at 3:29 pm }

Not to beat a dumb dog, but I think Joe Romm can tell us about the wonderful success of the supercar program that the Clinton administration promoted.

3 Matt Jordan { 06.21.11 at 1:32 pm }

Interesting post — OurEnergyPolicy.org is hosting a discussion on DOE’s 2011 Strategic Plan, as well as their QTR. I invite you all to take a look and weigh in.

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