/* Google Analytics */

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Hopes and dreams for the Department of Energy

The Senate last week unanimously confirmed MIT physicist Ernest Moniz as the new Secretary of Energy. As an MIT alumnus, I’m proud — but as an organizational scholar and (part-time) energy economist, I'm somewhat apprehensive.

A cabinet secretary is not just a domain expert, but a politician and an administrator. Sometimes capable politicians with domain expertise get appointed to the cabinet (John Kerry, Donald Rumsfeld) and other times they are mediocre politicians with little particular expertise (typically at Agriculture, Labor or Transportation).

College professors tend to be long on domain expertise and short on political or administrative abilities. Academic administrative experience tends to be a poor predictor of success in managing a federal bureaucracy. Harold Brown left the presidency of Caltech to become Jimmy Carter’s defense secretary, and probably was more helped by his Johnson-era DoD experience than anything he learned at Caltech.

Moniz is the second academic physicist appointed by the president to a job that once seemed crucial to his intended legacy. The first, Nobelist Steven Chu of UC Berkeley, was appointed at a time of seemingly unlimited resources to spend on research and fledgling cleantech companies.

Secretary Chu was obviously very smart, and his passion was in funding research, which he was able to do. However the climate changed after the Democrats lost the House in 2010, and after the bankruptcy of five DoE-funded startups (A123, Abound Solar, Beacon Power, Ener1 and Solyndra). At that point, any secretary trying to implement the president’s policy goals would be facing strong headwinds.

Even so, I’d be hard pressed to call Chu a success as an administrator and leader. Apparently I was not the only one who was unimpressed. An energy industry publication, Power magazine, was harsh in its assessment:
I believe it is fair to say that Chu was a failure at DOE, but nobody noticed. That’s not necessarily a harsh indictment. There have been, in my estimation, no successes at DOE. And that’s because it is an impossible job, created under circumstances that dooms the incumbent to failure. The Department of Energy is, to be honest, a fraudulent entity. It has almost nothing to do with energy, although Chu and his boss, President Obama, tried to transform it into an institution that somehow has relevance to the way Americans make, use, and pay for energy. Both failed…
As the National Journal reported upon Chu’s resignation, his lack of political skills were a mixed blessing: at first Congress enjoyed dealing with a non-politician, but when the going got tough, Chu was hobbled in his ability to represent (or lead) his agency.

I know little about Moniz other than his online biography. He was the founder of the greatly respected MIT Energy Initiative, which includes both science and also MIT’s decades-long experience with science policy. Before that, he was an undersecretary in Clinton’s DoE. His official home page lists a 2002 article on energy policy from Physics Today. Other than its embrace of “all of the above,” it’s about what you’d expect given his resume.

In the end, however, I think the past decade demonstrates that the emphasis on physics in energy policy is vastly overrated. Anyone with a college degree (except maybe a lawyer) can be taught about the four laws of thermodynamics and how to break down the 100 quads of energy produced and used in the U.S. every year.

However, energy is not a scientific problem, and only somewhat a business and systems problem. Fundamentally, it’s an economic problem: we have many sources of energy and for many uses (e.g. grid-connected electricity) the sources are completely fungible. The challenge facing the DoE and the government is simple: how do we most cost-effectively deliver the energy needed by American society to enable economic growth? Yes, R&D for new technologies will change that picture over time, but even with cool new technologies, the final resolution is an economic — what can we afford — rather than technical one.

No comments: