Expert: Congress Needs Energy R&D for Next Century, Not Next 20 Years

Expert: Congress Needs Energy R&D for Next Century, Not Next 20 Years
Expert: Congress Needs Energy R&D for Next Century, Not Next 20 Years

Ever since President Obama alluded during his inaugural address to tackling climate change and going after environmental and energy issues during his second term, experts have been speculating about how far the president will go and which issues deserve the most attention.

In addition to his address, the president has also nominated a number of so-called “climate hawks” to key positions in his administration, including the new secretary of state, John Kerry.

Host Carmen Russell-Sluchansky spoke with Dr. Steven Cohen, executive director and chief operating officer of The Earth Institute at Columbia University, to discuss the environment in Obama’s second term.


There are actually some things that did happen in the first term, I don’t know if people fully understand. The most significant move has been under the Clean Air Act, this actually took place before he got into the office, the court’s decided that greenhouse gas emissions were air pollutants that should be regulated under the Clean Air Act. The Bush administration moved very slowly to put that regulation in place but under president Obama’s first term, in fact they move much more rapidly. And so traditional command and control regulation just like the rest of the pollution act is being put in place right now on greenhouse gas emissions and the long-term effect of that has not been felt yet but that is in place. The second thing that he did in the first term is where I really see the increase in the second term was a lot of emphasis on renewable energy, which is in fact the most significant part of the program that took place in the first term but I expect more of on the second term.

Let’s talk about that a little bit – renewable energy is probably more controversial than it needs to be, but when we talk about this, obviously there is a lot of discussion about whether or not it is cost-effective and with a lot of Republicans and others saying that it is simply not, that we spend too much money, we don’t get as much out of it as we do, say, fracking for example. Where are we on this green-based economy that we hear about?

Because of the technology of hydraulic fracturing we are going to see quite a bit more mining of natural gas over the next 10-20 years in the United States if not in the other parts of the world but these are still only going to be transitioned fuels. I mean there are two things going on – one is that the amount of energy needed by the planet is growing rapidly, particularly because of the rapid economic development of China and India, but also all over the world people use more energy now than they did before and the fact of the matter is fossil fuels do cause greenhouse gas emissions and some day will run out. They are also expensive to transport and they damage the environment when you mine them. And so the cost of fossil fuels can only become more expensive. On the other hand, if you invested money in the technology of solar power, if you made solar receptors less expensive, if you made solar batteries less expensive, if you had a smarter technology so that you could send energy in a decentralized way to and from people’s homes and businesses, you would lower the cost of energy. And so I think that the approach that you are seeing in the Congress in the United States right now is incredibly short-sided. They have 20 or 30-year horizon but one of the things about infrastructure with energy now is just like transportation of water was in the 20th and 19th century, it is basic need of society. You have to invest in it for the next century and that requires governmental investment, it is not going to be done by the private sector and the countries that do that are going to have a real edge in the global economy of the 21st century and hopefully the United States will get that together.

When you are talking about investment, are you talking about for example R&D or is it more infrastructure? Is it both?

It is both. I mean, you know, investment in companies, which was so controversial before, that are actually at the manufacturing level, that is probably not a role for a government, but basic R&D that would not be done by corporations is a role. And if you think about it, the cell-phone, internet, personal computers, all the basic R&D that resulted in those innovations that transformed the global economy, were basically US government projects, were actually military. And we need to see that kind of investment in renewable energy, and if we do, I think you are going to start to see the costs of renewable energy being cost-competitive, even with hydraulic fracturing and those kinds of fuels will in essence melt away. If you look at the diffusion of technology into people and into the economy, there is over 5 billion cell-phones on the planet today. This is a product none of us knew we needed 20 years ago and a product like a smaller solar ray that could fit on the window of a home as opposed to the roof of the home and the battery that could power your whole house, if somebody comes up with that kind of technology, it will be like the cell phone. I mean if you go to talk to a young person in a class of the university and ask, how many of you have landlines in your dormitory rooms or apartments, none of them will raise a hand. They all only use cell-phones. Then I think that someday may be the same issue with how many of you are hooked up into the grid. Now if the grid becomes a smart grid, where you can sell power back and you can get power when you are not generating it, then you may in fact see people connected in the future which is what I think will happen.

With cell-phones obviously there is an extremely high margin of profit at the moment. Obviously there is a lot of players trying to get a piece of that.

About Carmen Munir Russell-Sluchansky 360 Articles
Carmen is a multimedia journalist based in Washington, DC whose work has appeared in a variety of outlets including National Geographic, NBC News, the BBC, Asia! Magazine, The China Post, Chicago Tribune and Orlando Sentinel.