Energy Matters: Our Energy Independence
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JOHN SCHUELER: Welcome to the latest edition of Energy Matters. I’m a new media specialist here with the Department of Energy named John Schueler. Today I am joined by Dr. Arun Majumdar, director of the Advanced Research Project Agency for Energy, also known as ARPA-E. We are here to discuss what we as a department are doing to diversify our energy portfolio, foster new technologies and break our reliance on foreign oil.
Thanks for being with us today, Dr. Majumdar.
ARUN MAJUMDAR: Thank you. Let me offer all of you my welcome to Energy Matters on LiveChat. We will open it up for questions and answers. Before we do that, though, I’d like to give you a short presentation on clean energy innovation, where I hope I’ll convince you that this is a really important issue for our nation.
So if you look at the future of the United States, and this future really belongs to our children and our grandchildren, that future depends on three securities: our national security, our economic security or economic prosperity, and environmental security. And at the foundation of all that a common theme between all these three securities are innovations in energy technologies.
Let us go a little deeper in each one of them: Number one, national security. If you look at what we are doing today, we import more than 50 percent of the oil that we use in our nation from other nations. And we are paying about $300 billion a year – about a billion dollars a day right now – for that. And this is not only an issue for national security, but this is an economic prosperity issue as well.
Imagine if you could spend that $1 billion a day in the United States. That would create a lot more jobs and lead to American prosperity. And in the transportation sector, we’ve only oil as one option. And that, as I just mentioned, makes us vulnerable from both a national security and economic security point of view.
The technologies that are required to make us secure in all the three securities – all of them do not quite exist today. And this is an issue not just for the United States but for many parts of the world. We are not the only oil importers – there are many other nations that import oil as well. And these securities are for them as well.
So how do we win the future? The president has said we need to win the future. How do we win the future? Well, we have to invent affordable clean energy technologies, make them locally and sell them globally. And these are the route to American jobs and economic security. That map has to go the other way, just like we have done in information technology as well as in biotechnology and many other technologies in the past.
But we are in a global competitive race, and there’s a race going on for this. And we need to understand the pace and scale of innovation that we need for clean energy technologies. And the best way to explain that is to understand what happened in the last hundred years. And if you look at the pace and scale of innovation you find in the last hundred years there were some amazing innovations that changed the course of history for mankind.
And what were those? Artificial fertilizers and Green Revolution: Most of us would not be here if it was not for food – airplanes, polio vaccination, electrification, nuclear energy, space, transistor-integrated circuits, fiber optic and wireless communication and the Internet. These are game changers because we cannot imagine our life without these.
And almost all of them happened in the United States. They were invented and scaled in the United States of America. Imagine all of that happening for clean energy in the next 10 to 20 years because that’s the window of opportunity that we really have. That is what we need to secure America’s future. And that future has not quite been invented.
So let me – allow me to give you a glimpse of that future. So let’s talk about biofuels. So what does biofuel – how is it created? Well, you have sunlight, you have carbon dioxide and you have water. And we use plants in various forms – sugarcane, corn, algae and cellulose – to combine carbon dioxide and water and eventually to make fuels. And this is very important because that’s an alternative to petroleum-based fuels.
But this is expensive today. And we have – you know, this is less than 1-percent efficient going from sunlight to fuel, which means if you are to scale this we will need a lot of land and quite a bit of water or other ways of making it cost effective. So here is an example of an attempt to do so. We have a project where if you look at the cost reduction opportunity, there’s a lot of it is in the feedstock. So how does traditional cellulosic biofuel production happen? You’ve got sunlight, you’ve got feedstock, and you need cellulose – you need to breakdown cellulose by enzymes, turn into sugar molecules, which are fed into microbes to produce oil.
The expensive part out here is the feedstock breakdown, the breakdown of cellulose, and collection of feedstock. Well, there’s a small company called AGRI-VITA which is trying to do that in a very different way. It is trying to put the genes that produce enzymes called cellulase inside the plant itself, but keep it in – but keep these enzymes inactive. But if you triggered them from the outside, they become active and they eat the plant from the inside.
These enzymes, by the way, are available in cows. That’s why they can eat grass and other plant matter and digest them. This is equivalent to putting the cow inside the plant – an amazing technology that we have to try. And if this thing works it could drastically reduce the cost of biofuel production.
We have another program called ElectroFuels, which is an entirely different way of making fuels. We created this in the last couple of years. How does this work? It takes electricity production from domestic sources – like wind, nuclear, solar – or the waste product of oil and natural gas – which is hydrogen sulfide; it takes carbon dioxide and uses non-photosynthetic microbes – fundamentally different from the photosynthetic approach – by using non-photosynthetic microbes to produce oil.
And this turns out to be at least 10 times more efficient than the photosynthetic one. And people thought this was really difficult, really hard and maybe impossible. Well, in less than a year and a half, people are producing oil using this new approach. This is a project in NC State and OPX Biotechnology that they produced the first ElectroFuels. There’s a group at MIT that is producing ElectroFuels. And there are 13 other groups competing with each other in trying to produce fuels using this non-photosynthetic approach – still using biology. And if these things work, then this may scale and maybe allow us to reduce our oil imports.
Let me give you another approach for giving us another option for transportation, and that is electrification. If you look at what we need, the major barrier for electrification of transportation are batteries. So we in ARPA-E started thinking a little differently. We said, why don’t we go for those batteries that will make electric cars have a longer range and have a lower life-cycle cost than gasoline-based cars so that electric cars can be sold without subsidies? And that is sustainable business.
Well, what do I mean by that? Well, if you were to travel from Chicago to St. Louis, which is 300 miles, on a single charge and have that car be cheaper overall than gasoline-based cars – that battery really does not exist today – not just in the United States, anywhere in the world. And there’s a global race going on right now to get that battery. That battery is at least double the energy density – how much energy you can pack in a given volume and given mass – double the energy density of today’s lithium batteries and one-third the cost.
It’s a really hard problem to make batteries better – two times better at three times lower cost than today’s batteries. So we set that as a target for the scientific and engineering community. And out of that is a competition that is ongoing to create a wide variety of batteries: an all-electron battery at Stanford University, a lithium-ion flow battery at MIT, lithium-oxygen battery, lithium-sulfur batteries, whole class of metal-air batteries, and magnesium-ion batteries.
We don’t know which one will win. But one of them – a couple of them might and make today’s lithium-ion batteries potentially obsolete. But that battery will allow us to make U.S. more globally competitive, and lead to manufacturing out here.
So these are just a few examples; I can give you many more. But the message is the following: Folks, this is real. This is not imaginary. This is happening in the United States of America. We can win the future. And what I just showed is a glimpse of the future.
Thank you very much. And let’s open it up for question and answers.
MR. SCHUELER: Great. Our first question comes from @sacagawea on Twitter who asks: What is the Department of Energy doing to promote propane-fueled vehicles? That’s the third-most used transport fuel globally.
MR. MAJUMDAR: Well, there’s a lot of, actually, natural gas. Natural gas has a lot of methane, some propane, et cetera. And we have just found a lot of natural gas in the United States and the use for transportation is being considered, first of all, for short-haul trucking and also for various transportation. There are many users of natural gas around the world for light-duty vehicles as well. And to do that in the United States is a little expensive right now. And so we have in ARPA-E, we are going to look at how to use natural gas for transportation in various different ways.
MR. SCHUELER: Great. Staying on the transportation note, Dave (sp) asks via email: What percentage of U.S. transportation do you expect to be serviced by future electric-drive vehicles within the next decade?
MR. MAJUMDAR: Well, that’s very hard to predict. It really depends on the cost of the batteries, how fast they can come down and how much they can come down. Ideally you want to have a batteries which is about $100 to $200 a kilowatt hour. Today, it’s about anywhere from $300 to $600 a kilowatt hour. And so the cost has to come down; the energy density has to go up.
And – but if this can happen within this decade I think we’ll see a lot of increase in electrification, whether it’s hybrid-electric or plug-in hybrid-electric or fully electric; in the next couple of decades I think we’ll see a big uptake. But it really depends on the technology and the cost coming down.
MR. SCHUELER: Great. Next question comes from Twitter, from ALibertarianUS: Why not cut red tape for domestic energy production – oil, nuclear – won’t cheaper energy and more jobs lead to alternative energy?
MR. MAJUMDAR: Absolutely. I couldn’t agree more. And in fact, in the last few years, we have increased our domestic oil production significantly. And that has led to a lot of jobs. But in the long term we have to realize that we have to reduce our – the imports of oil because that is, as I mentioned, is a source of – in our national security as well as economic prosperity. And to have only one fuel in the transportation sector, which is oil, as I said, it makes us vulnerable.
So we need options. In the stationary electricity generation we have multiple options: We have coal; we have natural gas; we have nuclear; we have solar and wind, et cetera. Those are all – hydroelectric. And that makes us, you know, much better off – if you have multiple options – because if something happens in one, at least we have other approaches to generate the electricity. In the transportation sector we have only one option right now. And I think a diversification of that portfolio of options is really important for our security.
MR. SCHUELER: All right. In light of your presentation, atrinbath (ph) on Twitter wants to know: “How is ARPA-E maintaining its role as a driver of innovation as its budget remains on the chopping block?”
MR. MAJUMDAR: (Chuckles.) Well, I think – first of all, let me use this opportunity to thank Congress for appropriating our first budget this year, 2011. A lot of people have worked very, very hard in Congress to get our budget approved and appropriated. And I just want to take this option to thank all of them for doing so.
I think we are in some tough budget times, as I don’t have to tell you. This is the – in the newspapers right now. But I think – you know, and historically United States has always invested in their future even in very difficult times; going back to Abraham Lincoln’s time, we have invested in land-grant universities and our railroads, et cetera.
So I think I’m confident that the value of ARPA-E is being seen by partisan groups – everyone has seen that value. And I’m sure Congress will do the right thing.
MR. SCHUELER: Great. Well, VI Incibus (ph) from Twitter wants to know: Why with all the risk is nuclear power still supported by our federal government? Aren’t there better options?
MR. MAJUMDAR: Well, I think we need to keep our options – you know, there is no silver bullet in the energy business. We need to keep our options open. We have been the leaders of nuclear energy. Yes, there are risks. Every technology has risks. And the question is, can we manage the risks? And given what we – what happened in Japan, we need to learn from that, and we need to utilize that knowledge of what happened to make our reactors safer; not just our current reactors but the future ones as well. So I think we need to keep our options open and need to invest in R&D to bring – to reduce the cost of energy produced by these multiple sources.
MR. SCHEULER: El Captain (ph) 36 on Twitter asks: What is the Department of Energy’s view on the technology and infrastructure needed to replace the combustible engine?
MR. MAJUMDAR: Well, the engine is not combustible; it’s actually the fuel that is combustible. But I think the question is really about, can we replace the internal combustion engine. Well, I think eventually that might happen, but at this point, at least in the near next few decades, we are seeing that the internal combustion engine will still be in play. And I don’t think we’ll be able to get rid of internal combustion engine, at least in the next few decades. What we are likely to see is a lot of hybridization as a transition. And that hybridization will happen with both internal combustion engine as well as electrification. And that combination increases the efficiency of the fuel use, and that will reduce our imports of oil.
So I think that’s the direction that we’re heading. Eventually, you know, will we be able to get rid of the internal combustion engine completely? Well, for small vehicles like cars and automobiles, maybe – I don’t know for sure – it depends on the cost and the availability of electricity, et cetera. Certainly for air transport it is unlikely that we will get rid of, you know, combustion – in this case, gas-turbine jet engines. It’s (unlikely ?) we’ll still be using liquid fuels for that. And for the trucking industry, that’s up in the air right now.
MR. SCHUELER: Jenny (sp) via email asks: Is it worth it to put solar panels on my home today? Is that something that I should wait for innovation to catch up with?
MR. MAJUMDAR: Well, I think the cost of solar cells is coming down very quickly. We have a program in the Department of Energy called SunShot. And that is to reduce the cost of electricity from solar to about 5 (cents) to 6 cents a kilowatt hour, which is cost-competitive with the cheapest form of electricity that is produced from fossil fuel – that is, natural gas combined cycle – and that – to do that within this decade.
So the cost of solar cells is coming down. It’s your decision to make whether you want to wait or not. But today, it is kind of expensive compared to the electricity that you may get from the grid. And that cost of electricity depends on the different parts of the country as different cost structures, but if you feel that this is an economic way of doing it, that’s up to you. But the only thing I can say is that the cost is coming down.
MR. SCHUELER: Great. In a related note, Colleen from Facebook asks: How will the Department of Energy educate consumers to understand how important it is to invest in renewables and energy efficiency projects now to save us from exponential costs down the road? I struggle with this question when working with homeowners who don’t see why they should spend their own money to upgrade their home to run more efficient forms of energy.
MR. MAJUMDAR: Well, that’s a great question. I think energy efficiency is something that we should be – we should be doing, we should be investing in. It saves money. It takes a little bit of first cost to reduce our energy consumption, but overall, in the long term, it has been shown that it can reduce our cost significantly. If you just take the example of refrigerators, the amount of energy consumption per unit in refrigerators has come down by a factor of four to five since the 1970s. And the cost has come down in equivalent dollars. So energy efficiency measures are absolutely critical. In fact, you know, this is not just the first thing to do and the right thing to do. It actually saves you money.
So I think we should all be looking at energy efficiency as an important part of our – you know, how we live our lives. That’s, I think, the smart way of doing it.
MR. SCHUELER: That’s fantastic. Raj Makap (ph) on Twitter wants to know: How do DARPA’s lessons at the Department of Defense play into ARPA-E’s organization?
MR. MAJUMDAR: Oh, that’s a great question. And I didn’t plan that question, by the way. (Chuckles.) But this is something that we’ve spent a lot of time on, because DARPA is a model of excellence in many ways. It has been around for more than 50 years, and we have studied DARPA in many different ways. I used to be funded by DARPA when I was in a – in a – in a university. And one of the lessons learned – well, the number-one lesson to learn is to really recruit top-notch talent – and that is extremely important – and have the talent be there in an organization for a finite amount of time and then they have to leave. And that brings in freshness of new ideas that comes into an organization like ARPA-E, and we are doing that. And that also gives you a clock. And these program managers or program directors that come in to ARPA-E have a finite time to excel. And their future depends on what they do in ARPA-E. So there is really outcome focus, and they want to get things done, which is absolutely critical.
There are also other lessons from DARPA in how to create programs, new – envision new programs. And we are following that very closely. And in terms of bringing in the stakeholder, the scientific communities, different communities that may not have interacted with each other in the past, you bring them together and some magic happens and new programs get created. And how to actively manage those programs where the programs directors are personally invested in these projects that they are investing in to help them – and these people that we are recruiting in ARPA-E are really, really technically savvy, sometimes better than the people that we fund.
And so they are an active program management trying to see these projects and help them, help the PIs, the scientists and the engineers and their teams, succeed. But if something is not working, we have to stop those programs instead of going down a blind alley and reallocate the money. So that is the kind of lessons that we are using from DARPA.
But there is a difference between DARPA and ARPA-E. And that is the fact that the defense sector is quite different from the energy sector. And in the case of DARPA, DOD is the buyer, is the customer for all the technology that they’re creating. In the case of ARPA-E, it’s the whole – the economy, which (is ?) energy. So we have to work a little differently. And connecting what ARPA-E does to the commercial side, to the market, is very, very critical. And that is different between ARPA-E and DARPA.
MR. SCHUELER: Great. Catherine Tweed (ph) on Twitter has a follow-up to your presentation. And she wants to know: What sort of timeline do you see for ElectroFuels coming to the market, given the progress we’ve had thus far: five, 10, 20 years?
MR. MAJUMDAR: Well, it’s in a very – it’s a very early stage right now. And I would say it will take at least 10 years to see some – you know, some scale in the volume of production, should it go through the first – you know, the next few years that it’s actually scalable – the first case.
So the first thing to see is that, is this fuel being created? Yes, the answer is we saw that fuel can be created. The next stage is that, can we scale it with some engineering? And this is chemical engineering, biochemical engineering at work. And we have to see that in the next few years. After that, we have to ask the question is that if it is scalable, can the cost come down and be competitive with petroleum, with fossil fuel? And if that happens, we need to create – we need to create some pilot plans to be able to do that. And if that happens, then it’s in large-scale production. So it’s at least 10, more likely 20 years, before it actually hits the market and others can use it. And everyone can use it then.
So that’s the timeline, and it’s uncertain. We have to – we have to see how we – you know, how we make progress.
MR. SCHUELER: OK. Anita via email wants to know: What is the GRIDS project up to? What are some things they have achieved since ARPA-E began? Maybe you should give us some background on exactly what GRIDS is.
MR. MAJUMDAR: Right. GRIDS project is up to a lot of good things. That’s the first statement. Well, let me explain what GRIDS is. This is grid-level storage of electricity. And before I go into details – before I go into – about GRIDS, let me explain what do I mean – what is required at the grid level. Number one is that if you look at the storage at the grid level, there are various kinds of storage. One is to do a very short-term storage, less than a second, to be able to do frequency control, et cetera, for the grid.
The second is the hour-level storage; for example, when you have wind that comes in and you have wind ramp of energy, there’s mismatch between the supply and demand, which is on the order of several hundred megawatts to about a gigawatt or so. And you need to be able to match that for about an hour. So gigawatt-hour level energy storage is important.
And then is the seasonal storage that you may have for various kinds of things that – there’s very long-term storage.
So in the – in the grid-level storage today, there are technologies to be able to do the really short-time scale; you know, sub-second or second-level storage for frequency control. That is already there today. That’s being deployed. What is really difficult to do is the gigawatt power level for an hour. This is like almost storing the electricity that a nuclear plant generates for an hour. And the only way to cost-effectively do that today is what is called pumped hydro. You water – you know, you pump water up a dam to a higher level or you compress air in a cavern. These are the ways to do that, but you can only – you’re limited geographically to be able to do that in certain locations. And the cost of doing that is about a hundred (dollars) to $200 a kilowatt hour of installed cost.
And so the GRIDS program is to challenge the scientific community, technical community, to come up with solutions to be able to do that anywhere and in any location for a hundred (dollars) to $200 – hundred dollars a kilowatt hour. So these are options like flow batteries. These are options like compressed air anywhere, OK, and different kinds of flywheels; even superconducting magnetic storage, which is a really longshot, but we need to try to see whether that can be done or not.
So that’s what the GRIDS program is all about: to develop those technologies that are scalable to gigawatt-hour level energy storage at a hundred dollars a kilowatt hour installed cost. And so that is what is going on. It’s going really well. In fact, a lot of new technology is being developed. We have, in fact, our first graduate from ARPA-E’s – from the GRIDS program, and it’s a compressed air storage, isothermal compressed air. And that has now led to – we only invested, you know, a small amount of money. And after they were successful using our money to do the R&D and reduce the risk, they have got 12 times more from the private sector. And that is – you know, is a sign of success. And they’re now trying to work with the utilities, et cetera, to see whether they can actually work in the real – (inaudible).
MR. SCHUELER: That’s great.
MR. MAJUMDAR: So this is a great story.
MR. SCHUELER: Yeah. And that’s actually a great segue to our next question, which comes from Mae Stevens (sp) on Twitter, who asks: How do you respond to skeptics saying that government investment crowds out private sector investment?
MR. MAJUMDAR: Well, it depends on where the government investment is. If you’re – if the government is investing in things that are really late-stage, that are – you know, that are going – that are business-ready things, yes, it might crowd out the private sector. But ARPA-E is investing in those technologies that is too risky for the private sector. This is – the venture capital community thinks this is too risky – this is pre-venture – new approaches that are fundamentally new approaches like the ElectroFuels that, you know, are unlikely to get any private sector investment because people don’t know whether it’s going to work or not work. There’s not even a prototype of something.
And that’s the area that is – ARPA-E is focusing on, trying to invest in that area and to then see what is – whether we can build a prototype, whether we can build the first battery or so, and then take it to the private sector and say, you know, look, this is a potentially viable solution; there’s still some risks, but at least the first risk of whether something works or does not work – that at least is taken care of by ARPA-E funding.
MR. SCHUELER: Great. Thank you. Next question comes from Raj (ph) via email. And it actually has to do with inter-government collaboration. He asks: ARPA-E has emerged from the Department of Energy’s portfolio of programs around the same time as the Energy Frontier Research Centers and the Energy Innovation Hubs. How do you envision ARPA-E interfacing with these programs to ensure that discoveries and developments in fundamental science see the light of day as innovative technologies?
MR. MAJUMDAR: Great question. First of all, I should say that all of these programs – the Energy Frontier Research Center (sic), the Energy Innovation Hubs and ARPA-E – are all within the same department, the Department of Energy. The Energy Frontier Research Centers are looking at science, looking at understanding how nature works, what is the interaction of energy and matter. These are basic questions, scientific questions and trying to push the frontiers of science.
ARPA-E is looking at translating the science into breakthrough technologies. And so we partner very closely with Office of Science not only for the EFRC, the Energy Frontier Research Center (sic), but even the other programs that are there in the Office of Science.
The Energy Innovation Hubs are – you know, the best way to explain that is to go back in history and give you some success stories. The Manhattan Project is an example where, you know, the scientists and engineers had to be brought together because there was a goal, there was a common goal. And people had to develop something very quickly, and they needed the focus of scientists and engineers all under one roof and to get to a solution. And that is the Energy Innovation Hubs. And that transcends Office of Science and the Applied Energy Offices; whereas, ARPA-E, which is modeled after DARPA, which is another huge success story, which is distributed across the nation in small teams of scientists and engineers, and there’s a lot of interaction within the Department of Energy to coordinate and so we can leverage the strengths of each other.
MR. SCHUELER: Great. Moving back to transportation for a moment, Brian (sp) from Facebook wants to know: What is the Department of Energy doing to promote rail travel in the U.S.? We know it’s a – it’s greener than flying or driving, so why is the U.S. years behind China, Europe and Japan in high-speed rail?
MR. MAJUMDAR: Well, I don’t think that’s a Department of Energy issue really. I mean, our role in the – in the whole United States is to provide the technological options and then for businesses to really create the businesses and take it commercial. And in the rail sector, you know, they will – if it’s electric rail, then we – they will hopefully use the clean energy that is developed from the Department of Energy to enable transportation of electric – for trains. And so that’s – I think that’s the role of the Department of Energy, to look at the energy supply, the energy demand and the infrastructure behind it. But it’s for businesses to create the high-speed rail, et cetera.
MR. SCHUELER: Great. Jay via email asks: A natural tension seems to exist between innovation and austerity. That is, clean energy innovation requires capital investment. But with the sluggish economic recovery, cutting spending is a frequent call. What can be done to address these concerns, both for the people of the United States and for Congress?
MR. MAJUMDAR: Well, I think – yes, I mean, that’s a great question. We are in some difficult financial times right now, but as I said before, the United States has always invested in the future. And as we know, I firmly believe clean energy is part of our future. Otherwise, our national security, our economic security and our environmental security is at risk. And we have done this all throughout the history of the United States. And this is, as the president said – and if you’re trying to lightweight an aircraft, the last thing you want to do is cut off its engine. And innovation is the engine for the United States, because that plane will be great in a museum, but it’ll never fly. And we want the United States to fly in the 21st century. So we need that engine of innovation to create a future which is much brighter than our current.
MR. SCHUELER: Great. Benji (ph) via email wants to know: Are there hang-ups in the current legal system and the way laws are structured that are inhibiting the acceleration of renewable energy deployment in the U.S., and what can be done to change that?
MR. MAJUMDAR: Well, I’m not a lawyer or a legal expert, but I think what we need to do in the United States is to align the innovations in technology – in science and technology. These innovations have to align in financing and markets with – as well as policy, remove some of the – align and streamline some of the regulatory issues that are there so that we can – we can accelerate the innovations going from the lab to the market. That is absolutely critical because we are in a global – globally competitive world.
And so that is absolutely necessary to do. And I think we could – you know, if there’s room for improvement – I think there is – and we should be doing that.
MR. SCHUELER: Great. Tim via email wants to know: What is ARPA-E doing, if anything, to help accelerate and develop carbon-capture/sequestration technologies.
MR. MAJUMDAR: Oh, many things. We have, in fact, a program focused on carbon-capture technology. It’s called IMPACT, and it’s an acronym. It’s Innovative Materials and Processes for Advanced Carbon-Capture Technology. And you could go to our website and check out all the different projects that are there. And the idea is to focus on those innovations, innovative technologies that can reduce the cost of carbon capture from a variety of sources, from (pulverized ?) coal-fired power plants, from other sources of carbon dioxide.
And so that’s the goal. Today’s technology uses something called amines, monoethanolamine solutions to be able to absorb carbon dioxide. That’s kind of expensive today. And our – what we are looking at is a variety of great innovations in trying to reduce the cost way below one-third the cost, let’s say, of today’s technology. And that, as I said, needs innovation. There are different approaches to do that. We don’t know which one is going to eventually bring down the cost, but we have to try. And that’s exactly what we’re doing I this IMPACT program.
MR. SCHUELER: Great. Michael via Facebook asks: Not all gasoline has the same greenhouse gas impacts. How can we get carbon labeling at the pump?
MR. MAJUMDAR: That’s a great question. Yes, if you – gasoline, if you produce from biomass has very – much lower greenhouse gas impact from – you know, from gasoline from a petroleum base. So that’s a great question. I don’t know the answer to that, frankly, because in the world oil market, it is a fungible quantity. As soon as you make oil, you’re subject to the price, the supply, the demand of the global market. And the prices are fixed in what – based on the supply and demand in a global market. So it’s very difficult to then label things today. But if someone can find that and actually get it, you know, accepted in the market, that may be a very innovative thing. So whoever’s thinking along those lines, I applaud them for their efforts in thinking along those lines, but how to do it is not easy. And if they can find some innovation, I’m all ears for that.
MR. SCHUELER: Great. Anna (sp) via email wants to know: Are there opportunities for students and other young, scientific-minded people to get involved with ARPA-E?
MR. MAJUMDAR: Absolutely. This is one of the things that I’m very passionate about. You know, when I travel around the country, you know, and different universities, I see that the younger generation is – you know, there’s really passion and enthusiasm and a lot of energy in creating a sustainable future. And that sustainable future involves clean energy. And so – and so – and we are trying all – you know, our best to get the students organized in a way and empower them. So let me tell you a few things that we have done.
We have started an ARPA-E fellows program. And these are some of the best minds in science, engineering, entrepreneurship, who are recent graduates who we can – we can recruit in ARPA-E and have them spend about two years. And during the two years, they’re empowered to think differently about our future, about different approaches to energy – towards clean energy, and come up with different ways and help us in that regard. So this is – they’re empowered to shape their future. That’s what we’re – that’s the ARPA-E fellows program.
The other thing I would say is that in many of these universities, there are energy clubs or sustainability clubs, et cetera. In our summit – we have an ARPA-E energy innovation summit, you know, every March – in our last summit that we had this year, we had about 60 students from across the nation participating at the summit. We have about 2,000 people out there. Sixty students showed up. And we wanted them to be there, because it is their future that we’re working for. And these students are now on their own, organizing themselves and helping us understand what they think about their future.
So this is a very important issue. I’m very passionate about it. We need more people to get into science and engineering and really shape that future – you know, our future, clean energy future. And if there are better ideas, I’ll be really happy to interact with the youth, because I think this is an extremely important issue. I have not seen this kind of interest in clean energy in other parts of the world.
So this is a core competence of the United States, and we should empower them as much as possible.
MR. SCHUELER: Great. Dave via email wants to know: All of these technologies sound great, but I want to know why we are not doing more to tap into the resources we already have here, such as drilling domestically.
MR. MAJUMDAR: We are actually doing that. We are producing more oil from within the United States in the last few years than we had ever done in the past. So this is something that we are obviously taking very seriously. The president has said that we will reduce our – we’ll give more permits, et cetera, to produce oil domestically. And that – we can do that in the short term. And that is, in fact, what is going on right now. But we have to think not just of the short term but of the long term. And one of the things that the United States has done in the past is that when the oil prices go up, we hit the panic button; and when the oil prices go down, we hit the snooze button. And that is no way of planning for our future.
So when I look at this domestic oil production, yes, that’s absolutely important for our short term. And we need to make our vehicles more efficient so that they use less imported oil. That’s also – you know, we could do that in the short term and the near term. But in long term, we have to have options. And as I said, today, for transportation, we have only one option: that is oil. And we need to have multiple options to hedge our bets on the future.
MR. SCHUELER: All right. And that plays in nicely to Lorraine’s (sp) from email, which is: What is the Department of Energy doing right now to bring down prices at the pump?
MR. MAJUMDAR: Let me be very clear about this. The Department of Energy does not fix the price of oil. That price is fixed by the global market. And so the only thing we can do is to – you know, is to develop R&D to reduce – or to reduce our dependence on foreign oil in the future.
Now, as you heard, the president made the decision that because of the disruptions of supply that happened due to events that are happening in Libya and other parts of the Middle East, to provide the supply for the United States, he has released – has decided – made the decision to release some oil from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve to compensate for the shortage in supply. And this is not just the United States. Many other players in the world are doing that right now.
MR. SCHUELER: Great. And I think we have one last question we have time for. And that is: With vast swaths of desert and open land in the U.S., why isn’t America investing in solar and wind power more instead of focusing on oil?
MR. MAJUMDAR: Oh, we are. So these are two different sectors of our – of our energy economy. One is the transportation sector, which is fueled by oil, and the other is the stationary power of the electricity sector, which is stationary. Now, the only way to connect them is if you get electrification of transportation. So we are doing a lot of work in reducing the cost of electricity that is produced by solar or wind. In fact, today, onshore wind is cost-competitive with other, you know, electricity generated by fossil fuel, like natural gas combined cycle.
Now, solar is – utility-scale solar is about three to four times higher cost than that from natural gas combined cycle electricity. So we are – that’s why we created the SunShot program, to reduce the cost of electricity from sunlight to be cost-competitive, which is 5 (cents) to 6 cents a kilowatt hour within this decade. And that’s the SunShot program. And so that’s what we are focusing on. And in the transportation sector, we’re trying to figure out how to get the electricity into transportation by reducing the cost of batteries and electrification of the vehicle.
So that’s what’s going on right now. So we are right on that ball right now.
MR. SCHUELER: Fantastic. Well, unfortunately, we’re out of time, but be sure to check out the energy blog at blog.energy.gov next week, as we’ll be answering many of the questions we didn’t have time to get to today. We’ll also be posting Arun’s PowerPoint presentation on energy.gov later today so you can pore over it in more detail.
Before we go, Arun, do you have any final thoughts?
MR. MAJUMDAR: Well, I want to thank all of you for participating in this live chat for Energy Matters. It is a really, really important issue, as I’ve said, for our children and our grandchildren. And all American generations in the past have left a world that is better for their children and grandchildren than what they lived in. And this is our opportunity to do so for our children and grandchildren.