House Panel, DOE at Loggerheads Over Energy Hubs

Jeff tries to explain how government works to readers of Science.

Getting to the nub of the hubs is still a problem for the U.S. Department of Energy.

Last year a key House of Representatives spending panel balked at a request by Energy Secretary Steven Chu for $280 million to begin eight so-called "energy hubs" in 2010. Chu attributed the panel's opposition to the idea (it approved only one hub, although the Senate was more generous and DOE eventually received money for three), which he calls Bell Lablets, to poor communication by departmental underlings.

Yesterday three senior DOE science officials pitched the department's 2011 request for a fourth hub on batteries and energy storage. The reaction by the Energy and Water Development Subcommittee was the same as last year: Tell us why you need them, because they seem redundant.

Although nothing was resolved, the protagonists broke fresh ground in trying to explain themselves to each other.

As the following excerpt from the hearing makes clear, Representative Ed Pastor (D-AZ), acting chair of the subcommittee, tried to tease out the differences among three key DOE research initiatives: the Energy Frontier Research Centers (EFRCs), within DOE's Office of Science; the fledgling Advanced Research Projects Agency - Energy (ARPA-E), which reports directly to Chu; and the hubs, which are supported by a variety of DOE program offices. In turn, Science Under Secretary Steven Koonin, the Office of Science's William Brinkman, and ARPA-E Director Arun Majumdar try their best to explain how their programs tackle different aspects of complex research and technology challenges.

Before you plunge into the dialogue, here's a primer:

—"Fuels from Sunlight" is one of the three hubs that Congress funded for 2010; the winning applicant will be announced this summer.

—ARPA-E had funded one round of 37 awards and has two more in the works.

—DOE has funded 46 EFRCs, many with money from the 2009 stimulus package, and is planning additional competitions.

Pastor: Some of the ARPA-E awardees received money that would transform CO<sub>2</sub> to fuel, so my question is: Was the grant given in relation to the hub? Is there a connection, or are these guys going to be lone warriors, doing their own thing?

Majumdar: The idea of ARPA-E is to take the science and the discoveries being made and see how we can mix and match to address a market need.

Pastor: So in this case the market need is to get fuels from sunlight.

Majumdar: That's right. So our program involves electrofuels. ...

Pastor: It's transportation fuels, from CO<sub>2</sub>, right? So wouldn't it be part of the hubs?

Majumdar: Because it may not be from sunlight. You have electricity coming out of wind. So the question is whether wind energy can be converted to fuels. That's electricity, carbon dioxide, and hydrogen. We have a lot of hydrogen in natural gas. But it's very hard to store hydrogen.

Pastor: Yes, I understand. That's why you want a battery hub in 2011.

Majumdar: Actually, the best way to store hydrogen is in hydrocarbons, which is gasoline. ...

Pastor: OK. So let me ask the question this way: What grants do you anticipate making after June, and in FY [fiscal year] 2011, from ARPA-E that will be directly related to this hub, of Fuels from Sunlight?

Majumdar: I'd like to make one thing very clear. ...

Pastor: Thank you for making it clear. It's very unclear up to this point.

Majumdar: If the hub is working in a particular R&D area, we will complement it. The hub is ideally located in one place, under one roof ...

Pastor: Good luck on that one. ...

Majumdar: ... so if they come across a technical barrier that the team cannot address, ARPA-E can enlist other teams to examine that area and get the hub moving again.

Pastor: Wasn't the intent that the hub would have all that expertise under one roof, with a team that could go from here to here to here. But now you have money going out to an independent entity. Tell me why that isn't redundant?

Majumdar: There are two reasons. Let's say that the hub is in Arizona, for example, and that's where the scientists and engineers are working together. And they come across a barrier that requires expertise from the rest of the nation, ARPA-E can provide that expertise from Pennsylvania and New Jersey and address that problem. ... The other thing is that if the hub makes a discovery with implications for other things, we can look at that opportunity and leverage that.

Brinkman: You have to understand that something like fuels from the sun is a very broad subject area. And we have biofuels centers. There are actually three of them. But they have gone in different directions in trying to understand how to make biofuels. So the idea that they are redundant [isn't correct]. ... But the science is very exciting.

Pastor: I know that it's very exciting, but there's at least one person you'll have to convince. Let me ask the question again. You have frontier centers. Which centers will be supporting the hubs, or be related to it?

Brinkman: There are only one or two, and they are very small.

Pastor: I understand, but that's still money going out.

Brinkman: Yes, that's true. So the real question is how much money are you willing to spend on this particular field of science?

EP: That's the question we all have to answer. .... OK, let me ask you the question this way. In 2011 you hope to fund more frontier centers. How many will be related to this topic?

Brinkman: None.

Pastor: Why not?

Brinkman: Because the new EFRCs are in subject areas that we do not currently fund. For example, materials growth--making single types of crystals.

Pastor: Don't you have some of this research going on in the labs?

Brinkman: Not so much. That's a very interesting question, actually, and we could have a long discussion about that. ...

Koonin: Mr. Chairman, if I could take a crack at explaining the distinction between these different types of funding modalities. The hubs are really meant to be a large-scale, sustained push on a strategic area that is deemed ripe for advancement and, ultimately, for commercialization. You mentioned several qualities, quite accurately, and I would add two that the secretary has discussed.

One is significant, sustained funding, to allow a large, coherent research program and to attract the best people. [The other is] putting the tactical management in the hands of the scientists who can initiate or terminate lines of inquiry to get to a strategic goals.

ARPA-E is a very different beast. It is much more tactical, the grants are short term, and there will be many of them. One will sow many seeds and hope that a few of them will come up, largely through the private sector.

The EFRCs are somewhat in the middle, smaller scale and more focused than the hubs on particular technical problems at the head end.

We can see a need for each one of them as we try to do energy innovation.

Pastor: OK. But I go back to what I said earlier. We support this Administration in its attempt to retain leadership in science. We also support its commitment to spend money wisely. So I'd like to know if there's a priority in this Administration among these different funding sources and how they will complement one another. ...

Posted in Funding, Policy