DOE Chief on Why We Don't Have a Manhattan Project for Energy

In times of national need, history has shown that countries can innovate fast — with enough funding. The government has been able to say “Deliver the goods now, we need them, quickly,” and has seen successful results, Secretary of Energy Steven Chu said in a talk today hosted by Stanford University’s Green Alliance for Innovative Action. The classic example: The Manhattan Project. Asked why the Department of Energy doesn’t launch an initiative like the Manhattan Project for green energy technologies, Chu said, well, we should — but the money isn’t there.

“If you look at the amount of funding for that [the Manhattan Project], and the amount of funding to put a man on the moon, it was a huge spike in funding.” For energy technologies that will help reduce greenhouse gas emissions, Chu said, “you still need I think tens of billions of dollars as a minimum per year invested in these technologies and the associated science.” The agency’s base budget, he said, is a far cry from that — just $3 billion. So it’s up to Congress, he said, to allocate more funds.

Chu, a onetime Stanford professor, began his talk with a rundown of the latest climate data and global temperature records. “This is recent data,” he said. “It’s more than a smoking gun. The carbon in the atmosphere is due to humans.” Bottom line, said Chu, “The question is not will the earth warm up, it’s how much will it warm up.”

The DOE chief made two predictions: 1.) “The price of oil will go up in the coming decades.” He commented that, “If you look at the Shells and BPs, most of their proven reserves are offshore.” Tar sands and other sources of fossil fuels down the road will cost the companies more to extract, and result in more carbon emissions, he said, than today’s sources. 2.) “We will live in a carbon constrained world. I don’t know when. Five years or 10 years. I hope it’s five years, worldwide. I hope it’s two.”

Referencing a quote from hockey player Wayne Gretzky (as he often does, about skating “to where the puck is,”), Chu said, “We have to get people in the United States to skate to where the world will be…Not wishing oil prices will get back to $30 a barrel.” The rest of the world has entered a race “to lead in this technology,” said Chu, citing green automotive technologies like hybrid vehicle batteries in particular as an area where the U.S. is lagging behind.

As for China, he said the country is now “spending over $9 billion a month to diversify and clean up their energy industry.” Noting one particularly pricey green project backed by China’s government, he commented, “A country essentially run by engineers is a good thing. Well, it’s not all good — I’d rather live here. But it has its advantages.”

Addressing students in the audience, Chu urged them to help address climate change by becoming “better informed, and then teach others. Make energy efficiency a social norm.” Heck, just turn off the tap — 20 percent of the energy in California is spent moving water — and activate the hibernate setting on your computer. He went so far as to show the audience how to change their computer power use settings. “Not power source optimize,” he joked, “saving-the-world power scheme.”

Of course, many young scientists could leave a much bigger mark through innovation. For students embarking on a path of greentech entrepreneurship, Chu sprinkled a few words of advice into his talk. Build a killer team (few major energy breakthroughs have come from researchers working solo, he said), and, “Don’t make a business plan on $300 dollar a barrel oil — you won’t get investment.” Pick a realistic price, he said — maybe $70-80 per barrel — and work with that.

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