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Campus hosts federal task force on sustainable energy
Decades of potential progress have been “frittered away,” said Berkeley’s Dan Kammen

| 11 September 2008

A panel of experts charged with advising the president and Congress on sustainable-energy research and development met on campus last Thursday for the third and last roundtable discussion on the topic conducted by the National Science Board’s Task Force on Sustainable Energy. More than 20 invited researchers, venture capitalists, and government officials joined with panel members to talk about how to stem global warming through a rapid transition to a sustainable energy economy.

“The transformation we’re talking about is truly dramatic,” said Berkeley energy expert Dan Kammen, an invited speaker at the roundtable discussion. Having “frittered away decades” when the federal government might have led a robust, coherent research-and-development effort, he said, it’s now imperative that sustainable-energy R&D be precisely targeted and adequately funded; the funding needs to be increased by a factor of at least three to five, he said.

Kammen proposed that the U.S. government include “carbon cost-benefit analysis” in its consideration of all proposed federal projects, at home and abroad, in order to make “reasonable decisions regarding greenhouse-gas emissions.” The tools exist to make those calculations, he said. “It’s a huge loss not to be doing so.”

Invited speaker S. Shyam Sunder, of the Commerce department’s National Institute of Standards and Technology, said that 16 federal executive agencies are collaborating to implement greenhouse-gas reductions in building projects under their purview. Sunder cited the “huge potential” to promote sustainability in the building sector, including via upgrade and retrofit of existing buildings. Other speakers discussed public-private investment in sustainable-energy projects, and issues related to financing renewable-energy innovation.

Even the best scientific research and engineering advances won’t translate into critically needed research dollars or policy changes if the public isn’t supportive, cautioned political scientist Eric Smith. The UC Santa Barbara professor noted that U.S. citizens — sometimes fueled by misinformation — have successfully blocked a wide range of power projects: coal-fired plants, hydroelectric dams, nuclear-power plants, offshore oil drilling, high-power transmission lines, and even wind farms. Smith said that individuals and households, which account for 38 percent of U.S. energy consumption (when personal travel is included), could achieve “huge” energy savings if the public were well-informed about what measures are most effective.

Unranked guides to, for example, “51 things you can do to stop global warming” don’t help the public do the right thing, he said, and “scaring people” doesn’t work either. “Education to change attitudes and impart information, combined with financial incentives, work best,” Smith asserted.

The National Science Board task force will fold input from its roundtable series into recommendations on how the federal government can best support science and engineering research and education initiatives on sustainable energy. The board expects to issue its final report this fall.