Nation & World

Current U.S. renewable energy goal too low, says head of national lab

6 min read

The head of the U.S. government’s renewable energy lab said Monday (Feb. 5) that the federal government is doing “embarrassingly few things” to foster renewable energy, leaving leadership to the states at a time of opportunity to change the nation’s energy future.

Dan Arvizu, director of the U.S. Department of Energy’s Colorado-based National Renewable Energy Laboratory, said a brief opening exists to dramatically increase the energy generated from renewable sources in the coming decades, but said more resources and a national policy promoting renewable energy will be needed to make it come true.

“A few things are happening, but at the federal level, embarrassingly few things,” Arvizu said in response to a question about government purchasing to stimulate the renewable market. “I see little happening at the federal level. Much more needs to happen.”

Arvizu spoke at the Science Center, delivering the latest talk in the Harvard Center for the Environment’s “Future of Energy” lecture series. The talk was the second in a week, following that of Abdallah Jum’ah, president of the Saudi Arabian Oil Company, the world’s largest. Jum’ah, who spoke Jan. 31, predicted fossil fuels will make up the bulk of the world’s energy needs into the near future and called for investment in making fossil fuels cleaner.

Center for the Environment Director Dan Schrag said Arvizu is presiding over the National Renewable Energy Laboratory at a time when the government’s energy policy concerning renewable sources is in flux.

The National Renewable Energy Laboratory has been the nation’s repository of renewable energy research over the past few decades. Interest in renewable energy research has waxed and waned in concert with energy prices, Arvizu said, particularly the price of gasoline at the pump. Since 1978, Arvizu said, public investment in renewable energy research has fallen 78 percent.

With additional impetus due to concerns about fossil fuels’ environmental impact, Arvizu said the nation is facing an opportunity to change the country’s energy mix in the future.

“We have an opportunity, an opportunity we can take advantage of or an opportunity we can squander and let go,” Arvizu said.

Although current projections of renewable energy growth show renewable energy providing just one-twentieth of increased demand in coming decades, Arvizu said those projections assume a business-as-usual energy climate.

Arvizu cited one report that said hydropower alone could grow to 10 percent of the nation’s energy supply by 2030 and to 20 percent by 2050. What’s needed, he said, is a change of our national mind set. Instead of viewing the hurdles that still face renewable sources and setting national energy goals with those hurdles in mind, we should set ambitious national renewable energy goals and set about overcoming the hurdles to meet them.

Such an approach is already under way elsewhere, Arvizu said, citing government-subsidized programs in Germany and Japan that have stimulated the market for renewables and, in turn, fostered growth in the renewable industries there. Germany alone makes up 85 percent of the global market for photovoltaics (a solar power technology), he said.

Public policies, Arvizu said, prime the market and attract venture capital because investors know government support means markets won’t completely collapse and whither away. And, as the cost for the energy drops, the market picks up, he said.

Arvizu acknowledged that the cost for energy generated from renewable sources is still higher than that from fossil fuels, but said research into renewables over the past 25 years has brought the cost of energy generated by them down by a factor of five to 10. He said there’s at least as much savings still to be realized through new technological innovations.

“You can create new markets if you have subsidies,” Arvizu said.

The federal government has set some renewable goals, Arvizu said, calling on biofuels to make up 30 percent of the gasoline supply by 2030, for 20 percent of power to be generated by wind, and for solar power to be market competitive by 2015.

There is an opportunity to meet those goals, Arvizu said, but they will require a considerable investment. The National Lab’s budget has been stuck at $200 million for the past four years, he said, while its operating budget has actually declined.

“We really don’t have the kind of resources I believe are necessary for the nature of the challenge,” Arvizu said.

The good news, Arvizu said, is that there are plenty of renewable resources to be had. Sunlight, wind, and biomass for biofuels are plentiful and widely distributed. Though U.S. utilities get nervous about the intermittent nature of wind power when it makes up about 8 percent of the power supply, Arvizu said Denmark has 40 percent wind power without major supply problems.

Solar electricity generated by photovoltaics has the largest potential to generate power, Arvizu said, but is also further behind technologically than wind and biofuels. Still, he said, progress is being made. The world’s largest solar power plant, 8.5 megawatts, is currently being built in Colorado, but it may not hold the title long, as a 20 megawatt plant is being planned in Spain.

Today’s solar products, he said, were on the drawing board and in laboratories 20 years ago, a cycle that is far too long.

“We need to make sure it doesn’t take another 20 years for what we’re working on now,” Arvizu said.

Biofuels offer an opportunity to change the nation’s transportation fuel mix, he said. The emphasis will be on fuels that can be used by the current infrastructure and burned in today’s cars. But he emphasized that biofuels are much more than ethanol, a fuel for which enthusiasm is based more on farm policy than energy policy.

“We need to start developing a broad suite of fuels,” Arvizu said.

The nation today generates 2 billion barrels of oil a year, but consumes 6.4 billion barrels. One study showed that there’s enough biomass available to produce the equivalent of 3.5 billion barrels, Arvizu said, while today’s technology could produce 2 billion barrels, greatly cutting our dependence on foreign sources.

“The point is there is a significant dent you can make,” Arvizu said.

We must be careful, however, to consider all the ramifications of new fuel sources, ensuring that the new methods of production don’t create new environmental ills even as we’re solving old ones.

Arvizu said German officials laugh when U.S. officials say that achieving 25 percent renewable energy by 2025 is a lofty national goal. Twenty-five percent, the Germans say, is a business-as-usual goal for them. One hundred percent renewable by 2025, Arvizu said, is cited by the Germans as their “stretch goal.”

“It’s a matter of national will and it’s a matter of leadership,” Arvizu said.