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From Rhetoric to Reality: U.S. and Global Energy Security

As prepared for presentation by
Shirley Ann Jackson, Ph.D.
President, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute

Johns Hopkins University School for Advanced International Studies
Bernstein-Offit Building, Room 500
Washington, D.C.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Good afternoon. Thank you for inviting me to speak at this distinguished forum.

I will speak, today, on our need to lay the appropriate framework for tackling the linked vulnerabilities of energy security and global climate change. The extreme urgency of these twin challenges requires that the framework be fully comprehensive and consistent. It must address interlinked aspects including policy and regulation, infrastructure, markets, research, technological innovation, and human capital — each leveraging each. A less comprehensive approach will prove incoherent, ad seriatum, and, ultimately, ineffective — as has happened so often in prior attempts.

To begin, I suggest that we change our language — that we move beyond the term “energy independence,” and use, instead, “Energy Security.” Independence implies that we are able to “go it alone,” fully supplying our own needs. The term appeals, perhaps, to an aspect of the American psyche — but, it is an unfortunate misnomer. There IS no energy independence. Of the approximately 190 countries in the world, not one is energy independent — nor is likely to be any time soon. Energy Security, on the other hand, suggests the imperatives inherent in the interlinking of national security, global security, and climate security.


We must understand the complex context within which to frame an effective approach.

We are at a time of exceptional uncertainty and enormous change, when our nation, and the entire world, face challenges perhaps greater, and more intricate, than ever before.

An unprecedented series of financial market events and their ensuing economic impacts — that are echoed in markets and economies around the globe — have forced us to relinquish past assumptions and former remedies. The geopolitical and geostrategic consequences are still evolving, and the outcomes are not yet clear.

World economic growth is predicted to slide below 3 percent — after an extraordinary run of boom years, in which global gross domestic product (GDP) rose as high as 5 percent, year after year.

We are unsure of our own economy. With extreme credit tightening, the cost of credit is escalating — if it is available. We have burgeoning bankruptcies, foreclosures, layoffs, job loss, bank instability, sinking corporate profits, and an additional national deficit that may reach over $1 trillion, as the full costs of a bailout of financial institutions and economic stimulus are felt.

Nor are we alone. China is implementing a stimulus package of its own, to boost commerce and employ thousands, as the ranks of unemployed migrants from rural areas to cities continue to grow — lending to fears of social unrest. Great Britain is staving off new rounds of bank failure, and is dealing, as well, with swelling unemployment and protectionist sentiment. With Russia’s oil and gas-driven economic boom softening, now that the price of oil has fallen to $40 a barrel, once-unquestioned domestic approval ratings of Prime Minister Vladimir Putin are weakening, too.

National alignments are changing, as global power, based on the geography of energy and other natural resources, shifts. New player nations, such as Russia, Brazil, India, and China hold new sway in the international sphere. Consider that almost half the world’s lithium — used in Blackberrys and sought by automakers for lithium-ion batteries for electric cars — is in Bolivia.


I returned, earlier this week, from the annual meeting of the World Economic Forum. Although its primary focus was on global economic recovery, there was an underlying acknowledgement that, with the planet absorbing more heat than it is emitting, unplanned climate change remains a core challenge that must be addressed globally, holistically, and now. Likewise, there is the growing understanding that climate change and energy security are linked vulnerabilities, which must be addressed immediately — and together.

You may have read about vast “brown clouds” that are sweeping from the Arabian Peninsula, across India and parts of China, to the Yellow Sea. The noxious clouds are a mix of automobile exhaust, coal-fired power plant emissions, chemical industry effluents, and particulate matter from slash-and-burn agriculture, and dung and wood cooking fires. The clouds are blotting Asian Skies, reducing sunlight, decreasing crop yields, altering weather patterns, and fouling the lungs of millions. These are critical problems. Climate change does not wait.

In 1850, atmospheric carbon dioxide stood at roughly 280 parts per million. Today, the figure is 385 parts per million. If the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere reaches 450 parts per million, researchers say that rising seas will threaten coastal areas and reduce rainfall by 10 percent — about as much as the 1930’s Dust Bowl drought. Carbon dioxide accounts for about half of the climate warming effect. The other half consists of chlorofluorocarbons, methane, and pollutants such as soot. A National Academy of Sciences study indicates that because of complex interactions between the atmosphere and the oceans, the effects of climate change may last for centuries, even if we succeed in cutting heat-trapping greenhouse gas emissions.

There is growing understanding that we have reached the point of consequences — cascading consequences — that global climate change has very real economic, internal stability, national security, and foreign policy implications that must be acknowledged and dealt with.

Already, melting Arctic ice has opened the once non-navigable Northwest Passage. Ironically, the increased access makes extraction of undersea oil and gas deposits more commercially viable, raising the potential for international conflict over energy resources. In fact, Canada has increased its military presence there.

Desertification in Africa is heightening tensions between nomadic and farming peoples, setting the stage both for starvation and possible genocide.

In low lying coastal areas — Bangladesh, as an example — millions may be forced to relocate to higher ground. India is constructing a wall along its 2,500 mile border with Bangladesh. Where instability, violence, and extremism fester, climatic changes exacerbate tensions and threaten geopolitical alliances.

On the broader energy front, uncertainty of energy supply, amplified demand, unpredictable price swings, and the impact of climate change have been major drivers of a global energy system restructuring. This restructuring continues, even in the present recessionary environment, and includes new forces, new players, and new alignments.

  1. New energy markets are developing worldwide, providing opportunity and options for new players.
  2. Supplier countries and their national oil companies are changing the terms of reference for traditional energy behemoths, especially with regard to oil and gas supply.
  3. Oil-generated wealth and central banks in developing countries are changing who plays in global financial markets.
  4. Nations are realigning, shifting old alliances.
  5. Corporations are realigning their priorities, changing how they do business, and making investments — obviously, to secure market opportunity, and to assure energy supply, but, also, to improve energy efficiency, and reduce their carbon footprint.
  6. Strategies for climate change mitigation and new markets, also, are driving new trading schemes, and investments in new sources and new technologies.

New energy markets have emerged because worldwide energy consumption is being driven by population growth, developing economies, improving living standards, and new energy-dependent technologies. The growth in energy consumption in China, while slowing with the economic downturn, will continue, because China’s urban areas seek to create 25 million jobs annually to absorb new job seekers and population migration to urban centers. China is expected to add at least 50,000 megawatts of electrical generating capacity each year — roughly the equivalent of the entire electrical grid of England. Indeed, the lion’s share of the Chinese stimulus package will go to such infrastructure.

The original “seven sisters” — western companies that controlled Middle East oil after World War II — are losing prominence to a new set of seven. Saudi Aramco, Russia’s Gazprom, China’s CNPC, NIOC of Iran, Venezuela’s PDVSA, Brazil’s Petrobras, and Petronas of Malaysia control almost a third of the world’s oil and gas production, and more than a third of its total reserves.

The old “seven sisters,” which became four after mergers in the 1990s — Chevron, Exxon-Mobil, BP, and Royal Dutch Shell — produce about 10 percent of the world’s oil and gas, and hold just 3 percent of reserves. The International Energy Agency estimates that 90 percent of new production supplies, over the next four decades, will come from developing countries — a big shift from the past. This is leading supply countries, and their national oil companies, to change production-sharing contract terms with “traditional” international oil and gas companies, and to seek greater ownership of assets, and a greater share of revenues.

The emergence of the “sisters” from oil-rich countries has been the basis for the creation of Sovereign Wealth Funds (SWF). These are nation-owned entities that have used, primarily, oil revenues to accumulate and manage national funds for investment objectives. Worldwide, it is estimated that some $3 trillion has been assembled in SWFs, especially out of the Middle East. Before the recent downturn, this was projected to reach $7.5 to $11 trillion by 2013. These substantial funds, and their sovereign support, offer both challenges and opportunities for governments and corporations, and are changing behaviors between and among these entities. A number of countries are using accumulated sovereign reserves to stimulate their own economies to survive the global economic recession.

The fact that many of the new “sisters” are state-owned, and that growth in the oil and gas industry rests in their hands, is restructuring national and international alliances, and will impact them for decades to come.

Consider that Russia has used its oil and gas abundance to lock up deals with European countries, even as there is concern that Russia may use its dominant energy position as a political tool.

For example: Gasunie, the Dutch National gas company, has taken a stake (9%) in the controversial Nord Stream Pipeline Project. The pipeline, controlled by Gazprom (the Russian gas monopoly), would carry gas directly from Russia, under the Baltic Sea, to Germany — bypassing Poland, Belarus, Ukraine, and the Baltic States. Some countries (the Baltic States in particular) have objected to the pipeline on the basis of environmental concerns. For others, such as Poland, it means a revenue loss (from transit fees). For still others, it can affect supply (Ukraine).

Although the deal is on track, Gasunie authorities say the global credit crisis is pushing up financing costs, and Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin has threatened to scrap the project altogether because of delays caused by EU lawmakers, who have called for a new study of the pipeline’s environmental impact. The deal, also, gives Gazprom the option to acquire, from Gasunie, a 9 percent stake in the Balgzand-Bacton pipeline, connecting the Netherlands and the U.K. This would give Gazprom a stake in a British supply pipeline for the first time.

Such moves reflect energy supply concerns in EU countries which import 80 percent of their oil and gas. EU concerns about Russian geopolitical uses of oil and gas appeared to be borne out when Russia cut off European gas supplies through Ukraine in January because of a Ukraine-Russian contract dispute involving Gazprom’s supply of gas to Ukraine. The dispute was resolved, and shortly thereafter, the Russian ambassador to the EU suggested a Gazprom-Ukrainian-EU consortium to oversee the supply of gas to Europe.

The invasion of Georgia by Russia last summer raised questions about the security of oil and gas pipelines through that former Soviet republic. The pipelines begin in Azerbaijan, passing through Georgia en route to ports on the Black Sea and the Mediterranean Sea, where tankers ship the crude primarily to Western Europe. The pipelines supply about 1 percent of the world’s daily oil needs, and are owned, in part, by BP, which shut down one line during the fighting, as a precaution. Although the lines were not damaged, the invasion, and the location of a Russian fleet off the Georgian coastline, successfully demonstrated that Russia could easily seize their control and emphasized Russia’s growing influence in the region, and over Europe.

These realities have led the EU to develop strategies for redundancy of supply, and for new and renewable sources of energy and energy efficiency, both to assure supply through diversification, and to mitigate climate change.

We face a future of bracing adjustment to this changing world.

As we shape our national energy goals and strategies, we must understand and account for the restructuring of the global energy system, its impact on markets, and on international alignments.

Last week, President Barak Obama directed the Transportation Department to establish higher automobile and light truck fuel efficiency standards for model year 2011, and directed the EPA to review the denial of the California waiver request to make emissions standards more stringent than Federal limits. With these (and other) steps, the President made it clear that his administration will address the urgency of energy security and climate change via a linked approach, and in the process, build the “new energy economy.”

In a very difficult economic climate, some may ask: “Can we afford to do this?” We cannot afford not to do this. Consider a single element of our dilemma — our dependence on imported oil. Although our consumption has fallen temporarily, it remains above 19 million barrels of oil per day, and we produce just over 5 million. Moreover, the need for energy to fuel economies and to improve living standards — globally — has not gone away. The urgency of climate change is ever-present. The interlinked challenges of energy security and climate change are a global economic security issue, and, for the U.S., a national security issue, as well.

Stimulus Package and Energy

Calling his economic recovery plan a “down payment” on a new energy economy, the President pledged to put Americans to work on clean energy investments, building a new electricity grid with more than 3,000 miles of transmission lines, and retrofitting federal buildings, and some 2.5 million homes, for more energy efficiency. The plan includes new mass transit options, and would double our capacity to generate alternative energy over the next three years.

The $819 billion stimulus package — the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act — passed last week by the U.S. House of Representatives, calls, in addition, for investment in digital infrastructure that holds potential for future industries — very much in the way the 1950s investments in interstate roads and highways facilitated the growth of automakers and national retail chains.

Broader energy and climate change legislation is expected later this spring.

Now that we are moving — now that national leadership is committed to action — we must focus on pathways that will lead us from the extant to the green — from rhetoric to reality.

Individual steps have been taken — by states, by regions, by companies, by citizens. Several sector-specific plans have been proposed. What is required is to bring people together across sectors for coalescence around clear goals. But there must be a framework for discussion and action — leading to a comprehensive energy security roadmap. Such a framework should be guided by five key principles:

  • First — redundancy of supply and diversity of source — This entails maximizing domestic production and ensuring reliable sources for necessary energy imports. This provides protection against supply disruption events, such as natural disasters or geopolitical instability, and a hedge against price volatility.

  • Second — providing for energy conservation and environmental sustainability, with calculation of full lifecycle costs, including the environmental impact of every proposal, program, and product. The sustainability equation must include the carbon cost of source development, from production through use and disposal, and must account for unintended consequences.

  • Third — linking optimum source to specific sector of use, thinking strategically about how each sector — electricity generation, residential and commercial heating/cooling, construction, transportation, etc. — is linked to source — for efficiency, cost effectiveness, sustainability, and reliability. We must consider how one sector impacts another — e.g. electricity generation and transmission versus transportation.

    This principle suggests that we ask not only where conversion from fossil fuels is possible, but where it is possible first. While ground transportation may run acceptably on electricity, airlines, at least today, clearly, cannot. Source for sector of use suggests that we may want to reserve a portion of our fossil fuel to the airline industry, which supports about 33 million jobs internationally, accounts for 7.5 percent of the global domestic product, and is essential to the global economy. If a decision is taken to promote plug-in hybrid vehicles, the resulting greater dependency on electricity, the power plant fuel, and the capacity to generate that electricity must be taken into account, as well as grid capacity and a nationwide network of electric power “charging stations.”

  • Fourth — investment in sound infrastructure for energy generation, transmission, and distribution, including the necessary regulatory and operational protocols to ensure the safe, secure, and reliable performance of refineries, power plants, the electrical grid, and other facilities.

  • Fifth — the development of appropriate supporting policies for well-functioning energy markets, with safeguards against market manipulation. This requires transparent pricing and price signals. An example relates to the carbon content of fuels, processes, and commercial and consumer goods. Proposals have focused on reducing carbon content or carbon dioxide production from point sources through financial incentives — primarily through a cap-and-trade system for carbon dioxide in which allowances would be sold, and the amount of allowance would ratchet down annually. Others espouse a carbon tax to induce reduction of carbon dioxide emissions. The feasibility of either approach will depend upon consistent definition and measurement of the true carbon content of products and processes.

The pathways that follow require a policy and regulatory framework, early steps, new technology, research and development, and human capital development.


We must focus on developing cross-sector policy, and regulatory pathways that are consistent across federal, state, regional, and local levels, and that incent all sectors — business and industry, academe, financial, labor, government — in a common direction, so that they do not work at cross purposes.

More immediately, as the U.S. Senate debates the economic recovery package, we will want a consistent, cross-agency policy framework to assure that “shovel-ready” infrastructure projects coincide with future energy security goals.

An example is provided by the work of the U.S. Council on Competitiveness. I serve as University Vice Chairman of the U.S. Council on Competitiveness, and I co-chair its Energy Security, Sustainability, and Innovation (ESIS) initiative, along with James W. Owens, Chairman and Chief Executive Officer, Caterpillar Inc., and D. Michael Langford, National President, Utility Workers Union of America (AFL-CIO). Last fall, the Council released a comprehensive energy security action agenda for the first 100 Days of the new Administration and Congress.

Electrical Grid

The Council’s Plan calls for beginning a National Electrical Transmission Superhighway by engaging state regulatory authorities in streamlining the current regulation/oversight patchwork for transmission within states, and between states, for better interoperability standards for the national grid. This “smart grid” must be able to integrate multiple intermittent and distributed alternative energy sources — wind, solar, biomass, etc., and smart appliances — anywhere, at any time, through a simple “plug-and-play” interface. “Smart grid” challenges include energy storage and active load management to balance renewable source intermittency, advanced control systems for “plug-and-play” operation, and for integrating new technologies responsive to high-level system control, and efficient 24/7 operation, with guaranteed stability and power quality.

Policies for “real-time pricing” is one way to induce “demand response,” making the system more responsive to power scarcity, thus, more secure. With “real-time pricing,” customers pay the current wholesale price of electricity, which can vary from less than 1 cent to almost $1 per kilowatt-hour, providing incentive for customers to use price-sensitive switches. These devices switch off power-using appliances when the price rises above a certain level. Rensselaer economists hope to estimate the dollar value of the benefits of increased demand response, and incorporate predicted demand response into the decisions that the system operator makes to control for costly overcompensations to power scarcity.

The current system is wasteful when it turns on enough power plants to compensate for a complete lack of, say, wind power, because there is almost always some wind power, and there is always some reserve generation capacity on standby. Rensselaer researchers hope to develop procedures that optimally account for the likely contribution from intermittent sources, instead of assuming there will be none — procedures to assist in deciding how much fossil-fuel-burning generation to turn on, minimizing the expected cost of power generation.

At Rensselaer, researchers, also, are simulating the effects of different carbon dioxide emission reduction policies on emissions, costs, prices, profits, fuel use, reliability, price volatility, and economic efficiency in the electric power sector.


The Council’s 100-day Action Plan asks that the new Administration and Congress take several immediate steps — some already in the works. It asks that:

  • There be a Mandate that Federal procurement — for goods, services, new construction, and facilities retrofits — lead the market toward higher energy efficiency standards, with concomitant reduction of carbon load. Such leadership by example, and by requirement, will encourage the private sector in this direction. President Obama already has moved in this direction.

  • That energy source subsidies be equalized to encourage the development and sustainable utilization of all energy sources; and create incentives for discovery, and the deployment of new energy sources.

  • That we establish a national “clean energy” bank, modeled on the U.S. Export-Import Bank and the Overseas Private Investment Corporation (OPIC), to provide long-term financing for private sector investment in sustainable energy solutions.



A proposed structural mechanism to develop and implement new technologies is the Advanced Research Projects Agency for Energy (or ARPA-E) created in August 2007 by the America Competes Act, to sponsor “creative, out-of-the-box, transformational,” high-risk, high-payoff energy research and development.

Its mission is to reduce dependence on energy imports, lower energy-related emissions, and improve energy efficiency in all sectors. A corollary mission is to ensure that the U.S. retains its technological lead in the development and deployment of advanced energy technologies.

ARPA-E has a complex “customer” base within the federal government, and among state and local governments, which have oversight and regulatory authority for many energy efficiency standards.

Important questions remain concerning its structure and function. How will ARPA-E fit into existing government structures? To whom will it report? How will it be staffed? At what level will it be funded — both in its start-up phase, and as it ramps up to full operation? What oversight mechanisms will be used to ensure that the research and development (R&D) that receives funding is tied directly to ARPA-E objectives? Each of these questions deserves careful consideration if ARPA-E is to succeed.

Concerning specific technology pathways, I could talk extensively about technological developments in traditional energy resources used in better ways, including gas, oil, smaller safer cars, and smart lighting and smart displays technologies that involve light emitting diodes (LEDs) and organic light emitting diodes (OLEDs). I could describe new renewable energy sources, such as hydrogen fuel cells, photovoltaic technologies, nano-materials and compound semiconductor materials for use in renewables, and developments in wind, solar, safer nuclear power plant design, bio-energy including algae and jatropha oil cultivation, and bio-chemical solar energy. Many are in research phases at the Rensselaer Center for Future Energy Systems, a collaborative effort with Cornell University and Brookhaven National Laboratory. With the understanding that any exclusion is in consideration of our time, I offer only a few examples from work at Rensselaer.

Distributed Generation Test Grid

The first example demonstrates that pathways to policy and pathways to technology often intersect.

Distributed Generation (DG) is expected to play an important role in enabling the pursuit and attainment of Renewable Portfolio Standards (RPS), which require states to generate electricity from renewable resources. Distributed generation refers to a small scale electric generation facility located at or near customer sites (usually industrial), often interconnected to the utility for reliability and power redundancy.

Rensselaer researchers are studying these fundamentally different power sources and the power electronic circuits and controls of these complex and dynamic systems. They are creating a test bed that will simulate the grid and allow the interconnection of sources — such as wind, solar, combined heat and power (CHP), fuel cell, etc. — and loads (equipment, motors, LEDs) to create a platform for extended distributed grid study. They, also, are studying stability and dynamic behavior of a utility distribution grid with small inertia, and investigating power quality interactions in inverter-based Distributed Generation. The focus is to develop and test new control features that meet industry safety standards.

In this context, alternating-current simulation has the potential to improve power system operation, policy decision-making, and decisions about what kinds of power plants and transmission equipment should be built.

Nuclear Technology

Nuclear power, perhaps, has a unique role in atmospherically benign energy-source technologies. Nuclear power plants emit only negligible amounts of greenhouse gases. They can supply the baseline loads of electricity to power large metropolitan centers. They can be kept online at constant (rather than intermittent) levels of reliability, relatively independent of shifts in weather; and are competitive with coal and gas fired electricity generation, today.

No other source of energy has this unique combination of features.

Nuclear power presents unique challenges, as well — related to safety, security, proliferation, and the disposal of waste.

As the challenges of energy security and climate change have gained urgency, we have witnessed a resurgence of interest in nuclear power. In multiple countries operators have renewed nuclear power plants licenses, extending plant lifetimes. In Asia, nuclear construction has picked up pace. Strong interest in new nuclear design has been expressed on nearly every continent, among countries that already have nuclear power, and among newcomers, as well.

Although safety remains a widespread concern, public opinion is strengthening that nuclear power plants can be operated at high levels of safety performance — dependent upon strong safety standards, a robust safety culture among operators, and the oversight of a credible, independent regulator. Security improvements have emerged, particularly in the aftermath of September 11th, 2001, which prompted intensive re-evaluations — across every industrial sector — to address vulnerabilities to technologically sophisticated terrorist attacks.

However, the linked challenges of nuclear proliferation and waste disposal remain. No country yet has completed a facility for the deep geological disposal of high level nuclear waste. Progress on the U.S. geological disposal facility at Yucca Mountain, Nevada, has been slowed by political concerns. The only other geological waste disposal facility under construction is in Olkiluoto, Finland. Neither is likely to be completed before 2020.

A key consideration is how to increase the security associated with nuclear fuel production, its use, and with the storage and monitoring of spent nuclear fuel, and how to decrease proliferation risk. A primary barrier for would-be nuclear proliferators is the difficulty of obtaining the fissile nuclear material suitable for nuclear weapons use: that is, the technological difficulty of producing weapons-grade uranium through enrichment, or of separating plutonium through the reprocessing of spent nuclear fuel. Although, both enrichment and reprocessing may have legitimate civilian uses, and both are permitted activities for signatories of the 1970 Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, as more countries focus on nuclear power as a solution to energy security and climate change, international concern for corresponding risks continues to build.

Though not every country needs to produce and/or reprocess its own nuclear fuel, those that make the sizable investment in nuclear power will want assurance that nuclear fuel will be readily available — without being subject to geopolitical changes of nuclear fuel supplier countries.

There are two primary avenues for addressing this challenge. The first — an institutional and political solution — would be the creation of new international arrangements for nuclear fuel production to provide user countries with the necessary assurance of the supply of nuclear fuel. Another would be the formation of a public-private partnership between one or more international or regional organizations or companies, each governed by an agreement of its members, both to ensure the supply of nuclear fuel to bona fide users, and to strictly monitor any proliferation-sensitive operations under international safeguards. Either would reduce, if not eliminate, the motivation for each nuclear power user country to have a complete fuel cycle.

The second avenue is technological — support for research and development on innovative nuclear fuel cycles with enhanced proliferation resistance. Pathways for innovation include: pursuit of a thorium fuel cycle; steps to make the conventional uranium enrichment and fuel reprocessing operations more transparent to monitoring; modular reactor cores designed to operate for the full reactor lifetime without refueling; and reprocessing approaches that do not separate out pure plutonium (i.e., so that the transuranic elements are kept together for re-use in new fuel elements, and highly radioactive waste is correspondingly minimized). None of these technological innovations are intended to produce “proliferation-proof” nuclear fuel cycles. But, they can fortify barriers against proliferation, making what is already a technologically complex challenge (the production of weapons-grade nuclear material) even less accessible to would-be proliferators.

The future of nuclear power rests with how the interlinked challenges of fuel cycle closure, nuclear waste disposal, and nuclear proliferation can be addressed.

Both policy and technology have more far-reaching implications than they are given credit for. As the United States works toward global climate change agreements — the post-Kyoto protocol negotiations scheduled for the end of this year in Copenhagen — our policy and technology pathways acquire foreign policy and financial market implications. U.S. policy developments have the potential to become more broadly applied as global standards, and can help establish the United States as an environmental leader in achieving international cooperation and agreement. Technological innovations become available through commercial markets to other countries, increasing the distribution of energy efficiencies, environmentally benign technologies, and sustainable sources, while contributing to U.S. economic strength.


Research and development is so basic, yet investment has declined over time. This is another of the Council’s Action Plan steps. It asks that we ramp up investment in energy research, development, and commercialization, by at least tripling the current federal investment in basic and applied energy research and development, as well as other measures to facilitate test-beds and commercial pilots.


The Quiet Crisis and a Green Energy Workforce

Policy and regulations, first steps, technology, and research and development are essential innovation pathways to energy security and climate change mitigation. But robust innovation of every kind relies entirely upon a single resource — human capital. To move our nation, our world, our environment from rhetoric to reality, from the extant to the green, we must put more focus on, and effort into, fostering a green energy workforce.

As a university president and a theoretical physicist, I have deep concerns that our national innovation capacity is in jeopardy. Converging forces, building over more than a decade, have created what I have dubbed the “Quiet Crisis.” These forces are eroding the production of the scientists, mathematicians, engineers, and technologists — the advanced professionals whom we must have for the robust innovation — and for effective policy formation — that will address our energy security challenges.

The scientists and engineers, who came of age in the post-Sputnik era, are beginning to retire. At the same time, we are no longer producing sufficient numbers of new graduates to replace them. This looming talent gap already is evident in many parts of the energy sector, especially in the nuclear and oil and gas industries.

Only about a third of American students, for example, take a physics course in high school. When 6,000 incoming American college freshmen were tested, it was found that they knew about half of what their Chinese counterparts, who take physics courses from 8th grade through the 12th grade, knew. Both groups, however, scored equally poorly on a test of scientific reasoning, in which they considered scientific hypotheses and proposed a solution using deductive reasoning.

We continue to attract talented international scientists, engineers, and graduate and undergraduate students, but we do not encourage enough of them to come, or hold onto those whom we do attract, as much as we did in the past. Other nations are investing in their own education and research enterprises, offering new opportunities for their scientists and engineers to study and to work at home. The “flattening” world means that they, also, can find employment elsewhere, not necessarily in the United States.

Our demographics have shifted. The “new majority” in the United States now comprises young women and the racial and ethnic groups which, traditionally, have been severely underrepresented in our advanced science and engineering schools. It is to these “nontraditional” young people to whom we, also, must look for our future scientists and engineers.

This “Quiet Crisis” is “quiet” because the true impact unfolds gradually over time — it takes decades to educate a biomolecular researcher or a nuclear engineer. It is a “crisis” because our national technological innovation capacity rests solely upon such talent.

Addressing the Quiet Crisis — identifying the talent in all of our young people, and getting them interested in the marvels of science and engineering, the wonders of discovery and innovation, is a beginning. But with the urgency of energy security and climate change, we must redouble our efforts and do more.

There is no time to lose.

Because of its urgency, human capital development, too, is incorporated in the First 100 Days Action Plan of the Council on Competitiveness, which asks that we mobilize an energy workforce by creating a “Clean Energy Workforce Readiness Program,” and support advanced study by creating competitive, portable undergraduate and graduate fellowships for study in energy-related disciplines. This is a necessary part of maintaining and enhancing our national capacity for innovation by developing our own talent, including the underrepresented “majority” — women and under-represented minorities — while continuing to attract and retain exquisite talent from abroad.

The new President’s education agenda includes making mathematics and science education a national priority. The plan includes recruiting recruit mathematics and science degree graduates to the teaching profession, and finding and supporting ways to help these teachers learn from professionals in the field. The plan is to ensure that all children have access to a strong science curriculum at all grade levels. The stimulus package contains approximately $140 billion for schools. In the near term, the funds will build and renovate classrooms, and keep hundreds of thousands of teachers from being laid off. The package also includes money for long-term reforms, including teacher bonuses tied to student performance, charter school facilities, and state data systems. This spending is in the stimulus plan approved last week in the House, but it is not in the Senate version.

One key to progress is to engage more women and minority graduate students in pursuing teaching at the highest levels. The lack of these groups as role models to demonstrate career paths in the STEM fields is yet another reason we lose students from these disciplines at the university and graduate school levels.

While a new generation of young people is in middle and high school, and undertaking advanced study in college and graduate school, we must find ways to re-educate and re-train the current workforce to energy related industries. All institutions — including trade schools and community colleges to major research universities — will want to examine their offerings to make possible re-education and re-training in these areas.


Tackling the multifaceted aspects of national and global energy security requires the broadest, most comprehensive of frameworks. The array of policies that guide our actions, and the regulations that will implement programs, likewise, must be comprehensive, transparent, and consistent. Making a real difference will entail vigorous innovation, and that rests upon a robust green energy workforce.

There are historians who contend that the 20th century actually began in 1914, with cataclysmic world war, the end of monarchies and empires, redrawing of the maps of Europe and the Middle East, first attempts at international cooperation, and, also, with technological advances that vastly bettered daily life.

We stand at a similar point today — at what is, perhaps, the true beginning of the 21st century — amid great change and great challenge. How we tackle national and global energy security, how we heal our planet’s climate, how we seize economic opportunities inherent in these challenges, how we conserve fossil fuel use and innovate sustainable energy sources, how we manage the interactions between and among nations — how all of these play out over the next decades — will determine our relationship to the planet, our dealings with each other as humans, our history and our future.

Thank you.

Source citations are available from the division of Strategic Communications and External Relations, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. Statistical data contained herein were factually accurate at the time it was delivered. Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute assumes no duty to change it to reflect new developments.

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