Technology has transformed our lives, freed most of us from the need to grow or gather our own food, and helped us build an economy and a way of life that could not have been imagined a century ago. But at the same time, technology threatens the planet and the resources that we all rely on to survive: our air, water and food. Over the past century, we have seen technological change create industries, stimulate economic growth and enhance our quality of life. The light bulb, modern water and sewage systems, the motor vehicle, refrigerators, air conditioning, air travel, telephones, radios, TVs, cable, the internet, the computer, the cell phone, the smart phone: the list could go on. We are now at the point where the maintenance of all of this technology and our technology-dependent lifestyle is threatened by our dependence on fossil fuels. These fuels damage the environment when they are extracted from the earth and further damage the environment when they are used. The solution to this technological dilemma is, ironically enough, more technology.
The technology we need is a small-scale, decentralized form of energy generation and storage that does not require a fossil fuel and does not generate a toxic waste product. It could be a highly efficient, not yet designed solar receiver and battery, or it could be another technology that has yet to be invented. Whatever it is, we need it badly and we need it soon. The question for the world's governments and for our own government here in the United States, is: What can be done to stimulate the rapid development and diffusion of such a technology? The transformative potential of such a technology is obvious. The political necessity for this technology should be equally obvious, but is not. It's really quite simple. Without an energy transformation, our way of life is in danger, and the probability that the aspiring billions in the developing world will achieve what we have here, disappears. In its place, we can expect a declining standard of living and political instability. Renewable energy and sustainable development are a necessity - not a luxury.
Here in the United States, we have just been through a Presidential election and new officials have been nominated to take over the Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Energy. It is fair to ask if either of these leaders or either of these agencies is capable of leading the transition to a sustainable, low polluting, and fossil-fuel free economy. New York Times reporters, John M. Broder and Mathew L. Wald, introduced the new energy and environment team by observing that:
"Mr. Obama nominated Gina McCarthy, a tough-talking native of Boston and an experienced clean air regulator, to take charge at the Environmental Protection Agency, and Ernest J. Moniz, a physicist and strong advocate of natural gas and nuclear power as cleaner alternatives to coal, to run the Department of Energy. The appointments, which require Senate confirmation, send an unmistakable signal that the president intends to mount a multifaceted campaign in his second term to tackle climate change by using all the executive branch tools at his disposal."
McCarthy will take the lead on the traditional command and control regulation of greenhouse gasses under the Clean Air Act that has been authorized by the Supreme Court. This regulation will eventually lead to reductions of the carbon dioxide content of emissions from energy generation. This is an important step forward, and McCarthy is an excellent choice for this difficult and grinding task. The potential regulation of greenhouse gasses provides a long-term incentive for fossil-fuel free energy.
At the same time, the Administration seems determined to pursue the politically compelling, but completely idiotic "all of the above energy strategy" that pushes for the maximum extraction of domestic sources of fossil fuels, while also attempting to develop nuclear, solar, wind and other forms of energy. "All of the above" is the absence of an energy strategy and the opposite of what we need. What we need is a focused and all hands on deck effort to develop renewable energy. Does Dr. Moniz look like the right guy for the job? Maybe. He is an experienced bureaucratic player, having served as an Undersecretary of Energy under Bill Clinton. As Director of MIT's Energy Initiative (MITEI), Moniz has led an impressive effort to develop new energy technology. According to David L. Chandler, writing on the MyScience website:
Under Moniz's stewardship, MITEI has supported almost 800 research projects at the Institute, has 23 industry and public partners supporting research and analysis, and has engaged 25 percent of the MIT faculty in its projects and programs. At last count, more than two-thirds of the largest single area of funded research is in solar energy, with more than 100 research projects in this area alone. Projects supported through MITEI have fostered the development of such innovative technologies as low-cost solar cells that can be printed directly onto paper or other flexible, inexpensive materials; utility-scale liquid batteries that could enable grid integration of intermittent energy sources; transparent solar cells that could be built into display screens or windows; and bioengineered batteries.
So, while media accounts focused on Moniz's attraction to nuclear power and hydraulic fracturing for natural gas, his most recent research portfolio seemed heavily focused on solar energy. It's hard to know what he will do. Perhaps he is just an "all of the above" kind of guy - ready to develop all forms of energy.
If the Environmental Protection Agency works hard to regulate greenhouse gasses and pushes energy development away from fossil fuels and the Department of Energy works to develop the science and engineering of solar energy, we might be able to move from the non-strategy of "all of the above", to something that makes choices and makes sense.
In some respects, the choice of these two senior officials is less important than the emergence of the White House team that will advise the president on energy and environment during the second term. We have no news about changes in that critical group. While DOE and EPA are not trivial players in this game, the real power game in Washington does not involve the agencies, but the White House staff. That is where the real policy direction will be set. While both Moniz and McCarthy could push a renewable energy agenda, if the president and the White House continue with "all of the above", we can all sit back and wait for more of the same.
Strategy involves trade-offs and choice. A strategy indicates what you will do to achieve a goal. When you indicate what you plan to do, you inevitably reveal what you will not do. Or what you will do less. That means that you will make someone angry. "All of the above" is a public relations phrase, not a real energy policy, because it refuses to acknowledge the need to make choices. Resources are always scarce, and so when you tell me you are doing everything you are really telling me that you are confused or not willing to reveal your real strategy, or preparing to do nothing.
The president seems to understand the energy issue, and seems to understand the relationship of renewable energy to America's economic revival. But he seems unwilling to pay the political price needed to make renewable energy a real priority. The surest sign that President Obama is willing to make renewable energy a priority will be when we stop hearing about "all of the above" and start hearing about the need to set priorities and make choices.