Monday, August 7, 2017

Who Is In Charge Of The Department Of Energy?

President Trump's appointee for the secretary of energy is truth telling to say the least.  His pedigree speaks volumes to the course that our nation is headed down toward the ever changing demands of the world with regard to the energy landscape.  Below is a brief exploration of how he achieved the status of Secretary of Energy and how potentially dangerous this might be for the United States of America's energy future.

Secretary's Stance on Climate Change?

As a Secretary of Energy, one would hope that the appointee would have knowledge about the department which he is heading.

Furthermore, I receive the "tip sheets" from the news site "Politico" daily which have summaries of the daily political events occurring in Washington D.C. in the Capitol daily.  Here is the summary I received nearly a month ago in an e-mail:

PERRY V. CLIMATE SCIENCE: Energy Secretary Rick Perry has set himself up for a fierce grilling before a House Appropriations subcommittee today after he said Monday - contrary to the overwhelming scientific consensus - that he doesn't think carbon dioxide emissions from human activity are the main driver of climate change. Greens quickly pounced, with the Sierra Club saying that "Rick Perry's outrageous comments are the latest indication that this administration will do everything in its power to put polluter profits ahead of science and public health." Remember EPA Scott Pruitt faced weeks of criticism and a scientific integrity probe when he made similar remarks about CO2 on the same show, CNBC's "Squawk Box." Following his comments, Oregon Rep. Earl Blumenauer sent Perry a host of educational materials outlining the basic established science of climate change.

This is both Perry's first public appearance on Capitol Hill since his nomination hearing in January as well as the first hearing in 2017 of Rep. Mike Simpson 's energy spending subcommittee, so there's plenty to discuss. Simpson doesn't support a lot of the deep cuts Trump's 2018 budget suggests for DOE, but he has also said that the proposal is "Mulvaney's budget" rather than a document with buy-in from the Cabinet secretaries so don't expect him to call on Perry to defend the funding decisions made by the White House. Democrats, on the other hand, will likely needle Perry over funding cuts for renewable energy programs, climate-related work and the elimination of ARPA-E. There aren't any big climate hawks on the panel but issues further afield, like Perry's comments Monday that carbon dioxide emissions aren't the primary "control knob" of climate change, are almost certain to squeeze their way into the discussion. The hearing starts at 1 p.m. in Rayburn 2359.

To hear the entire hearing, click here to access the webcast of the hearing which around 2 1/2 hours in length.  Here is the video below:

On that particular day on Capitol Hill, Secretary of Defense did reasonably well in the 'House of Representatives' by giving vague answers.  Which is to say, he states that money will be diverted and moved around to satisfy deficits and budget cuts.  Furthermore, Secretary Perry assures representatives that money does arise which will cover the deficits.  Overall, his performance was accepted as satisfactory at the time to the representatives of the house.

Whereas, in the senate, Secretary Perry did not fare so well.  Here are two clips below which show how the Secretary performs under pressure with respect to funding.  The first video is an interaction between Senator Al Franken and Secretary Perry on the validity of 'climate change':

Wow.  Next, a video of the interaction between Secretary Perry and Senator Angus King finally shows the secretary's behavior when called out on the absurdity of the budget funding in President Trump's bill:


Over the last 3 months, Secretary Rick Perry has evolved to narrow down the mission of the Department of Energy.  He believes as stated in the hearing above that the mission of the Department of Energy is:

"the core mission is to promote innovation and technology..."

Fair enough.  How that will be achieved with the significant funding reductions proposed by the Trump administration remains to be seen.  The hearing in the 'House of Representatives' revealed that major reductions are proposed from the Trump administration in order to reduce the cost burden on the government.  What is disappointing (of many points) is that important agencies like ARPA-E are being proposed for massive cuts (greater than 75% reductions) - near shut down reductions - which is very problematic.  In the hearing, Secretary Perry stated that 'fundamental research' is vital to the mission of the Department of Energy.

What About ARPA-E?

Before concluding the blog post, the issue of closing or defunding ARPA-E should be briefly expanded upon.  The agency 'ARPA-E' stands for "Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy" and is introduced on 'Wikipedia' as:

ARPA-E, or Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy is a United States government agency tasked with promoting and funding research and development of advanced energy technologies. It is modeled after the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA).

Pretty detailed right?  Lets look to the introduction to the 'Wikipedia' page for the parent project agency "Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency" shown below:

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) is an agency of the U.S. Department of Defense responsible for the development of emerging technologies for use by the military.
Originally known as the Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA), the agency was created in February 1958 by President Dwight D. Eisenhower in response to the Soviet launching of Sputnik 1 in 1957. Since its inception, the agency’s mission is ensuring that the United States avoids further technological surprise.[3] By collaborating with academic, industry, and government partners, DARPA formulates and executes research and development projects to expand the frontiers of technology and science, often beyond immediate U.S. military requirements.[3]
DARPA-funded projects have provided significant technologies that influenced many non-military fields, such as computer networking and the basis for the modern Internet, and graphical user interfaces in information technology.
DARPA is independent of other military research and development and reports directly to senior Department of Defense management. DARPA has about 240 employees, of whom approximately 15 are in management, and close to 140 are technical staff.

Again, the introduction of the two agencies is limited in its scope.  Here is an excerpt from an article titled "The Energy Department is reportedly denying funds for already-approved grants" stating the reductions and the significance of ARPA-E:

Brad Townsend, associate director for energy innovation at the Bipartisan Policy Center’s Energy Project, told ThinkProgress that it’s not uncommon for DOE or other federal agencies to reevaluate programs when they come in, especially when the government is operating under a continuing resolution like it is now for fiscal year 2017.
“FY’17 funds being withheld is less than ideal but doesn’t raise any flags for me,” Townsend said. “What concerns me more is if you look at some of the FOAs [funding opportunity announcements] for FY’16 programs, there are funding announcements that have yet to be made and are already overdue… Those are dollars that have been appropriated and have to be spent.”
ARPA-E was a bipartisan initiative modeled on the Department of Defense’s Department of Advanced Research Agency. The agency was designed to focus on helping the United States gain a competitive advantage in science and technology and look at ways to develop technologies that would provide economic, security, and environmental benefits.
The agency is focused on “high-impact, high-risk and high-reward” projects, Townsend noted, and he agreed with the former program director that these are areas in which the private sector likely would not invest. For example, researchers for a group called Makani Power created a wind turbine project, funded by ARPA-E, that sends airborne kite-like wind turbines high into the air where they harness a more consistent and powerful wind source than earthbound wind turbines. Makani Power designed the drone kites to automatically take off and adjust themselves to the windstream to maximize energy production.
ARPA-E awarded Makani Power a $3 million grant in 2009 for the project. In 2013, Google X, the search engine company’s research and investment arm, acquired Makani Power, turning the research project into a success story for ARPA-E.

The government should make cuts where possible.  What is not clear in the current budget proposal is where the increase in funding for the 'Department of Defense' will go to?  Agencies like ARPA-E and DARPA are research arms for the Department of Defense.  Is it the desire of the Trump administration to outsource to industry all of the research for the United States?  According to the proposals and testimony of Secretary Rick Perry, that appears to be the case.

Why is this problematic?

Research conducted by grants to universities from agencies like ARPA-E and DARPA advance knowledge which may or may not contribute to a marketable item down the line (in the future).  That is not to say that the research is worthless or not worthy of funding.  I can speak from experience during my graduate education.

I was working off of a grant funded by DARPA to explore the area of Quantum Information Processing or Quantum Computation (i.e. Quantum Computing).  The field of my research is chemistry.  I am a physical chemist.  Although, I build electrical circuits (NMR probes) to further the study of molecular systems via Nuclear Magnetic Resonance spectroscopy.  Without going into laborious detail regarding my project, the money (from a grant) for research actually resulted in improvements to the broad field of Nuclear Magnetic Resonance Spectroscopy in general.  Why is this important?

Nuclear Magnetic Resonance Spectroscopy is the predecessor behind 'Magnetic Resonance Imaging' -- meaning -- improvements to one field could potentially result in improvements to the other.  MRI technology needs to be pushed forward - just ask anyone who has had an MRI taken lately in the hospital.


Secretary Rick Perry might turn out to be a good Energy Secretary in the end.  Recent announcements in the news suggest that President Trump might move him to the Department of Homeland Security to deal with our borders.  This is a typical example of the lack of experience that is required to run the Department of Energy.  Moving politicians around to head departments with which they have no experience is not fair to the Department of Energy and the United States citizens in general.  We (USA citizens) expect to have leaders who have a vision which involves pushing technology further to create a better world.

By the sound of the answers above, leadership at the Department of Energy is lacking.  Especially with the supposed suggestion in the current budget of closing extremely important programs like ARPA-E.  What confuses me is that the current administration would like to increase defense spending.  How is that consistent with 'defunding' the ARPA-E program?  Makes little sense to me.

In the end, the large question with the current administration is the following:

Who will fund research?  Government or the private sector?  What is the argument for a shift in either direction?

In the coming months to years, the answer should become apparent.  Hopefully, in that time, the United States does not fall too far behind in leading technologies for the future of the planet.

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