Monday, December 14, 2009

REDI and waiting

I like Steven Chu. It's hard not to like a Nobel-winning academic who gets appointed to a cabinet-level post in any presidential administration. Dr. Chu is currently our Secretary of Energy and appeared today in the U.S. Center to talk about new DOE initiatives unveiled here in Copenhagen. Collectively, they are being referred to as Climate REDI, which stands for Renewables and Efficiency Deployment Initiative. He began his presentation with a quote from President Obama's address to the UN earlier this year when he stated, "the days when America dragged its feet on this issue are over."

Loyal readers may recall that we wrote earlier about the real structural problems the Obama administration is faced with in trying to ambitiously reconfigure the country from one fundamentally dependent on fossil fuels into an economy and society that has a sustainable energy footprint. To put it another way, we have developed ourselves into a box.

Our lives are structured around the automobile and long commutes, there is little to no public transportation anywhere but the biggest cities, and we subsidize the production and consumption of energy from sources such as coal, oil and natural gas. This is who we are. It has fundamentally restructured our geography which is now turning into a bit of a burden.

Our homes, stores, and jobs have all been built around the assumption that people will travel long distances. Thanks to savvy advertising in the post-war days of the 40's-50's, the car has grown into more than just a mode of transport, it is a symbol of our strength, individuality and independence. In reality, most of us could not be more dependent on the car than we are now. These are the problems the administration faces here in Copenhagen. They simply don't have the means to turn back the clock and reinvent America even if they realize that is the solution. Budget shortfalls, political anarchists mining the field of progress, and the complacency of the public all act to constrict the choices Obama has. Faced with monstrously high expectations from the rest of the world, the U.S. delegation in Copenhagen is bound to disappoint.

Climate REDI was announced with much fanfare and support from the environmental ministers of Italy, India and Australia. Chu went on to describe what the Department of Energy was prepared to do about climate change.
  • Double the amount of U.S. renewable energy capacity by 2012 (shouldn't be hard since in 2008 less than 1% of the total energy consumed in the U.S. came from wind, solar and geothermal sources).
  • Concentrate on increased energy efficiency, not only for cars but also buildings and appliances (he stated that buildings consume around 40% of the energy produced in the U.S. which leaves room for tremendous savings in efficiency).
  • Develop new energy efficient technologies (referenced the DOE arpa-e program for funding new innovative technologies).
In comparing the task at hand to the Green Revolution of the 20th Century that transformed the face and productivity of agriculture, Sec. Chu has set a high bar for the innovation of new energy technologies. When The Population Bomb was published in 1968, it was inconceivable that advances in agriculture could possibly keep up with a quickly expanding human population. Of course, the Green Revolution ushered in an era of unprecedented food security for places like China and India that could now feed their people. Its a grand thought that we could, with modest investments in the right places pull off a similar transformation in the way that energy is produced and consumed in the U.S. and around the world.

I should be clear here. The proposals that Sec. Chu rolled out today will undoubtedly improve the living conditions for many people around the world who will be able to access technologies that are now out of reach. It will also no doubt be very important in supporting the nascent renewable energy and construction industry here in the U.S. It may be the best the U.S. has to offer at this point but I'm not sure everyone will think it is good enough.

Dr. Chu closed with a quote from another Nobel Prize winner, Martin Luther King who stated: "We are now faced with the fact that tomorrow is today. We are confronted with the fierce urgency of now. In this unfolding conundrum of life and history there is such a thing as being too late." Everyone here would agree with that sentiment and it is nice to hear this from the DOE Secretary. However, he should have included more of the quote. It would have made people think twice about what they should take away from the proposals being made and whether they go far enough to forestall catastrophic results.

King continues..."Procrastination is still the thief of time. Life often leaves us standing bare, naked and dejected with a lost opportunity."


  1. Thanks. I like the thoughtful commentaries.

  2. I hope that last piece of King's quote won't apply but I'm not holding breath. Martin W.

  3. Again... great post... catching up on all of your work here, keep it up. The more I read this stuff the more I think America (and the world, frankly) just needs Obama to suck it up, fix all the crap that is wrong, risk being a one-termer and let history reward him when it turns out that he did the right things. Here's hoping!



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