Let's Get Serious About Energy

Were you outraged at the Department of Energy over the long-term lack of electricity to millions of Americans following hurricane Sandy? Are you waiting for Secretary Chu’s explanation of why 40% of the 2012 corn crop is going to ethanol, raising food prices during an economic slump? Do you follow DOE’s positions on the Keystone XL pipeline or the renewal of the Wind Production Tax Credit?

I can confidently say the answer is ‘No’, since no one I know believes the DOE plays a serious role in US energy strategy and execution.

Serious Issues, No Leadership

The most startling part of the Bipartisan Policy Center‘s call for national energy policy (“The Executive Branch and National Energy Policy: Time for Renewal”) is not the observation that DOE is not leading US energy strategy, which is clear. The startling part is the extent to which every other part of the federal government has their hand in energy strategy.

This would be fine if energy was a quiet, stable backwater of national interest. But in President Obama’s first term alone we’ve had the Fukushima nuclear disaster, radical changes in Mideast politics, the Deepwater Horizon spill, dramatic changes in fossil fuel extraction and viable North American sources, a hugely expensive and minimally successful political push for electric vehicles, an unexpected drop in US GHG emissions to 1992 levels, and a hurricane who’s destruction and human impact were massively compounded by a prolonged lack of electricity to millions.

Energy is a serious issue for the well-being of our citizens, economy and national security. While we have huge challenges, we fortunately have huge opportunities as well. We can no longer afford a DOE that believes “all of the above” is an actual strategy, and compensates by ceding actual strategy and execution to “all of the above” federal agencies.

Here is my roadmap for getting serious about energy.

Part 1: Be Clear on the Goal

Part of what’s confounding about our inability to drive a coherent national energy strategy is that the goal is not a mystery. We can argue about their relative emphasis, but the components of the target are clear:

Cheap, clean, reliable and secure energy.

Interestingly, not only are these targets easy to list, for the most part they can be quantified, and we can see if we’re making progress. It is time for a factual, human-readable, annually produced “State of US Energy” report that shows whether we are making progress in each of these areas.

Step 2: Create a Home for US Energy Strategy

It would be natural for DOE to be the home for US energy strategy (ala the Department of Education), while the [Bipartisan Policy Center][BipartNov2012] makes a strong case for a National Energy Council (ala the National Security Council).

While there’s probably good arguments for each of these approaches, I actually don’t care. At this point the need for a stable home is more important than the specific address, and the President needs to identify where it is, and make sure it has the authority and leadership it needs.

Step 3: Make DOE Mission-Driven

Regardless of where US Energy Strategy lives, DOE still has an important role to play, and changes are necessary for them to effectively fulfill their role.

Much has been written at the Breakthrough Institute, ITIF and elsewhere about the ongoing need for energy innovation. While the Energy Innovation Tracker shows us that energy innovation spending at DOE is not insubstantial, it, not surprisingly, suffers from the “all of the above” strategy currently employed at the agency. DOE’s huge number of point projects lack an overarching strategy and system for making decisions.

In contrast, DOD approaches energy with a mission-driven mindset, setting priorities and challenging DOD researchers and private industry to meet those challenges. A perusal of the DOD Energy Blog provides a glimpse into the effect of a mission-driven mindset. Instead of trying to pick winning technologies and companies, the DOD challenges public and private research, with the rewards of big contracts to those who can deliver.

Under Arun Majumdar’s leadership ARPA-E began to emulate this method of driving innovation, but ARPA-E represents only a few percent of DOE’s innovation budget, and even less of its overall budget. Given the clear goals outlined above, DOE should be able to adopt this style of decision making more broadly through the organization.

Step 4: New DOE Leadership

Secretary Chu is clearly a brilliant man and a world-class expert on the science of energy. But mission-driven organizations understand that there are different leadership roles to play, and a qualified CEO is almost never qualified to be a Chief Scientist, and vice versa.

DOE needs a new Secretary who is up to the task of turning DOE into a mission-driven organization capable of establishing and carrying out an immense, innovation-driven program to drive the US towards cheap, clean, reliable and secure energy.

It’s Not Easy, But It’s Not Rocket Science

Our national energy goals, challenges and opportunities are not hazy, vague concepts that are difficult to quantify. We know that rising energy prices hurt businesses and our most vulnerable citizens. We know that our current energy system has damaging impacts on human and planetary health. We know that Americans and the economy suffer when energy supply is unreliable. And we know that having critical parts of our energy infrastructure and supply in the hands of anti-American or unstable political systems threaten our way of life.

The goals are clear, and moving towards them requires focus, investment and innovation. Fortunately when America gets serious, we have shown ourselves to be unequaled in meeting these types of challenges. The four steps outlined in this document provide a blueprint for starting down that path.