When the U.S. secretary of energy comes to town with only a few days notice to local institutions and media, it's kind of a big deal.
Combined with the rumored announcement of a big economic development announcement coming soon to San Antonio, anticipation and curiosity levels were high as U.S. Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz made his way through the warren of local, innovative technology booths at UTSA's downtown campus to the town hall meeting Thursday morning.
The hope was – as is typical when a high-ranking federal official comes for a visit – that he'd be bringing federal dollars with him to invest in local sustainable energy technologies, education, or research. Nothing of the sort was revealed here but a press release from the Department of Energy (DOE) describes Moniz' announcement of a $30 million investment in 12 projects across the U.S. working on transformational hybrid solar energy technologies announced earlier in the morning at UT-Austin.
"These projects will help advance solar energy beyond current photovoltaic (PV) and concentrated solar power (CSP) technologies to drive lower-cost, reliable solar energy deployment," the release states.
None of the 12 Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E) projects, selected through the Full-Spectrum Optimized Conversion and Utilization of Sunlight (FOCUS) program, are in Texas. Click here for the full list.
“The Energy Department is working across the industry to help our country’s top engineers, scientists and entrepreneurs bring new solar innovations to market faster," Moniz stated in the press release. "The ARPA-E projects announced today are exactly the type of innovative technologies we need to keep breaking through barriers – advancing lower cost, highly efficient solar power.”
Moniz' visit, however, was an opportunity for local leaders and community members to engage a national figure in a dialogue about the new energy economy that Texas and San Antonio are quickly proving to be leaders in.
"We've had a very good relationship with the Department of Energy, centered around renewable energy as well as energy efficiency," said Mayor Julián Castro, citing San Antonio's reception of American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 funds that went to Texas' first bike share nonprofit, solar installations and weatherization projects, among other things.
"Cities in general are absolutely critical on the front lines on what we can do to move clean energy and to move our approach to climate change," Moniz said to the meeting room crowded with students, faculty, community leaders and citizens. "Mayors have taken a tremendous leadership role and with, in fact, the continued urbanization that we've been seeing in this country and certainly internationally, the role of cities will only get (more important) as we go along."
When it comes down to on-the-ground development in sustainability technology and practices, the federal government holds the purse, but local and regional communities is where the real work gets done. Frankly, climate change and advancement in technology is happening far too quickly to wait around for a politically divided, paralyzed U.S. Congress to act.
"No longer can we compete with Austin and Houston and Dallas," said Les Shepard, director of UTSA's Texas Sustainable Energy Research Institute (TSERI). "We need to embrace them because we're basically competing (internationally) ... If we come together with the way we think about problems, we'll transform America's energy future, we'll impact the environment in a positive way and we'll address this nexus issue between energy and water."
Mayor Castro and UTSA President Ricardo Romo joined Shepard and Moniz on stage during the forum.
Moniz' Texan tour follows President Barack Obama's statements on energy in his State of the Union address last week. Three basic themes emerged: an "all of the above" approach to diversify the nation's sustainable energy portfolio to reduce dependence on carbon-emitting sources; increasing "human capacity" through workforce and education development; and supporting innovation.
Oil, Coal, Gas, Nuclear, Renewable? All of the Above, Please.
Oil and coal produce the the heaviest release of CO2 into the atmosphere, which, in turn, triggers global climate change. Natural gas emits less carbon, but is still a fossil fuel and its extraction results in methane releases (an even more potent greenhouse gas). Fossil fuels remain essential to industrialized economies, but today's focus was about picking up the pace of transitioning to renewable energy source.
"Climate change is a fact," Moniz said. "(Our goal is to) reduce carbon emissions -- and we are reducing carbon emissions," and natural gas/natural gas liquids have played a large part in that reduction.
The DOE is looking into stimulating construction of plants in the U.S. and new nuclear technology. Renewables are, of course, a large priority, including solar, geothermal, wind, and the "forgotten renewables" including wave power and micro-hydro technologies.
"The important fact is, costs are really coming down very significantly for these technologies," he said, and that's a key to accelerating our transition off of fossil fuels.
Efficiency, or demand side, standards are prominent as well in discussions of the new energy economy.
"I have never seen a credible scenario in which the climate risk imperatives are addressed without strong demand-side progress," he said.
Vehicle, household appliance and building efficiency standards have been instrumental and will continue to be so, he said, to see an estimated three billion ton reduction in CO2 emissions by 2030 and a cumulative $1 trillion of consumer savings in the U.S.
Human Capacity: "All Hands on Deck" for Clean Energy
Science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) education is absolutely critical for this all-of-the-above approach to work.
"(STEM education has) long been a pathway to upward mobility in our society," Moniz said, paraphrasing the president that it's the ladders of opportunity to the middle class. "We need all hands on deck."
"Too often climate change actions are thought of in terms of limits instead of opportunities," he said. Over the next 40 years globally, almost $1 trillion a year will be spent to transform our energy infrastructure. "We gotta be a head of the train ... we're not going to be there without investing in education ... or without having all of our citizens participate. Right now, our energy workforce does not reflect the american population."
Moniz refered to the recent DOE initiative to engage more minorities in the industry.
"We need to think about the problem differently, honestly, from Washington," Shepard said after the forum of South Texas institutions. "We need to be funding minority-serving institutions – and I'll call them majority-serving institutions because that's what they'll become."
TSERI received $750,000 from the Department of Energy in 2013 as part of the SunShot Initiative to train minority students for solar-industry jobs in partnership with St. Phillip's College.
Innovation: Manufacturing Investments
The Department of Energy is working with the Obama administration to launch four new manufacturing institutes this year. The first, announced in january, will be at North Carolina State University.
"The institute will work to drive down the costs of and build America’s manufacturing leadership in wide band gap (WBG) semiconductor-based power electronics -- leading to more affordable products for businesses and consumers, billions of dollars in energy savings and high-quality U.S. manufacturing jobs," stated Moniz in a DOE blog post last month (accompanied by the video below).
If all goes as President Obama plans, the initiative will be part of an ambitious network of up to 45 manufacturing innovation institutes working in different key fields – requiring congressional approval.
Moniz closed out the question and answer session of the town hall by pointing to the nation's energy infrastructure as a key component to a successful future.
"The fact is that the increase in gas and oil production has occurred so rapidly that we don't have the infrastructure in place to really effectively move it," he said. Trains are loaded to capacity from oil shale plays, some plants are flaring gas instead of capturing it, and getting propane to Kansas during this especially cold winter from Texas, for instance, has been done slowly and primarily by trucks – and only by bypassing some transportation regulations with emergency waivers.
"We are going to be looking in an integrated way at these infrastructure (platforms) and that will be very important to sustain increased production and getting the products where they are (needed)."