This week, the Department of Energy (DOE) is celebrating its 30th anniversary. I hope they hold it down. There is not too much to cheer about. When creation of a department was first bruited, the United States was importing 30 percent of its oil needs. Now it imports 60 percent. Keep the champagne on ice.
Over the course of its history, DOE has spent hundreds of billions of dollars with little to show for it. If as President Jimmy Carter, who created the department, imagined its purpose was to improve energy supply, then it has failed absolutely.
I believe, but do not know, that DOE has succeeded in the stewardship and renewal of the nation’s nuclear weapons stockpile. I do know that the department has helped to improve some energy technologies, such as a better drill bit for oil extraction and better nuclear plant controls. And it has developed some wonderful materials and technologies, which were cold-shouldered by industry–ceramic exhaust ports and valves for the automobile industry come to mind.
But DOE has failed to develop a commercially viable technology for using dry hot rock in geothermal electric production. It also has failed to develop a workable model for in situ gasification of coal. Unintentionally, the department found the limits of direct solar electric generation with power towers and mirrors.
Where DOE invention did work was through a program, now phased out, of cooperative research and development agreements. These helped many manufacturers, including fiber extruders, improve their operations.
In the 1980s, it was hoped that DOE and its network of 25 major laboratories would lead a technological revolution that would take the United States to unimagined heights of creativity. That happened, but it happened in Silicon Valley. So DOE fell back on cleaning up the nuclear waste sites of earlier generations; dismantling old nuclear weapons; and pleasing politicians by accommodating their feel-good projects—think the Clinton-Gore smart car and the Bush hydrogen car.
Importantly, DOE monitors nuclear testing around the world and is a lead agency in issues of treaty verification.
In the beginning, there was the Atomic Energy Agency: a swaggering promoter and defender of all things nuclear. When environmentalists objected to its role as promoter and regulator, it was swept into a new organization of mismatched agencies called the Energy Research and Development Administration. That agency brought together such disparate things as nuclear weapons manufacture, desalination, and coal research–each with its own political constituency on Capitol Hill. It even enriched uranium: something that was later hived off to the private sector.
The core of DOE, and its predecessors, is the national laboratory system: an archipelago of gifted institutions that employ around 100,000 people. While the genius of the national labs is uncontested, so is the duplication of their effort and their own bulwarks against reform. Do we need so many of them? Is something learned by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Golden, Colo. studying hybrid vehicles, when they are being studied in Oak Ridge, Tenn., at the National Transportation Laboratory? And why is government investing in technologies that are established in the market?
The first secretary of the nascent department was James Schlesinger, who had already distinguished himself as chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission, director of the CIA, and secretary of defense. Had this rock-ribbed Republican been secretary of energy at a different time, he might have advanced the streamlining of the national lab system.
Like Department of Homeland Security, DOE is a political semantic creation. There are too many leaves in its portfolio for it to deliver to the full extent of its talent or the national need.
I was there at DOE’s planting. I would like to be there at its pruning. And I would like to be there when a secretary, both with the ability and the mandate, transforms the department to something that might be called “mission critical.” The current secretary, Samuel Bodman, appears to have the credentials but not the mandate.
Certainly, there are islands of excellence in the DOE archipelago. But they are set in a sea of dysfunctional bureaucracy.