Clean Energy Push Rivals Manhattan Project

03/12/2009 at 8:08 pm Leave a comment

A once-in-a-generation shift in U.S. science is being spurred by the Obama administration’s push to solve the nation’s energy problems, in a massive federal program that rivals the Manhattan Project.

“The government’s multi-billion-dollar push into energy research is reinvigorating 17 giant U.S.-funded research facilities, from the Oak Ridge National Laboratory here to the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in California. After many years of flat budgets, these labs are ramping up to develop new electricity sources, trying to build more-efficient cars and addressing climate change.”

[The Office of Science estimates its bigger budget allowed it to create nearly 1,400 research jobs at the 10 labs it oversees in the fiscal year ending in September, up 11% from the previous year’s staffing levels. It estimates it created another 1,400 science jobs at universities. In addition, it says, funds from the Obama administration’s stimulus package created hundreds more government lab jobs. As a result, the balance of U.S. science is shading a few degrees — away from the pure research typically practiced at universities, and toward applied science.

These efforts mark a third wave of spending at national labs such as Oak Ridge, a vast complex of woods and research facilities not far from Knoxville, Tenn. Oak Ridge was one of three labs set up to help build the atomic bomb during World War II. It boomed again during America’s energy-independence push in the 1970s.

Oak Ridge plans to increase its staff by 25%, or 800 positions, over the next 18 months — even as its neighbor, the University of Tennessee, has lost state funding and pared back faculty searches.

“We have a renewed sense of mission and urgency,” says Oak Ridge’s director, Thom Mason.]

For example, the last time Tennessee’s Oak Ridge National Lab saw this level of funding was during the last big renewable energy push – in the Carter era. It had initially been one of three labs set up to work on the atom bomb, during the second world war.

When the Reagan administration came in, renewable energy research was once more cut. All the early research advantage that the US had in solar and early electric car R&D went overseas to Japan.

The Obama administration has once more increased the funding for the Department of Energy, back up to comparable levels from the Carter administration:

As someone who covers renewable energy news; I see an overwhelming number of innovative projects now being funded by Steven Chu’s Nobel-prize winner directed Department of Energy.

Some examples:

In this downturn, more VC funding news has come from the Department of Energy, than from Silicon Valley. It is not often that a renewable energy writer like me will agree with the fossil-fuel-friendly Wall Street Journal, but this level of science funding truly is generation-changing.

Let’s hope, when the next administration takes over; that we don’t throw away our current round of advanced research, like we did the last time after the last push in the ’70s. We Americans suffer from a swinging political pendulum that has hurt us before.

Article by: Susan Kraemer

*Some contents of the article have been modified


Entry filed under: Green technology, Incentives, Policy, Renewable Energy, research. Tags: , , , , , , , .

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