A Conversation with Charles (Skuk) Jones
Jones discusses alternative energy innovation
Belfer Center Programs or Projects: Energy Technology Innovation Policy
As part of the research team for the Belfer Centerís Energy Research, Development, Demonstration & Deployment Policy project, you co-authored a spring 2010 report that looked at the Department of Energyís fiscal year 2011 budget request and concluded that the 7 percent increase requested for applied energy research, development, and demonstration funds is not enough to meet the energy demands of the 21st century.† Can you tell us how much you believe the budget should be increased to meet these needs Ė and where the initial funds should go to have the greatest impact?
Itís hard to give an exact answer to the number. Weíre still working on a report that will be released in the fall that will give better guidance as to how much and what distribution will give the best returns. But given that, itís going to be hard to set a number because what you really need to do is adapt as you go along and see where the best results are coming form and try not to set one perfect answer and stick with it, but to adapt over time.
There are some principles that are important to consider, which is how we concluded that result, that request was not high enough. Were still not at the level of effort we were at the late seventies, energy technology effort. And the situation today is at least as urgent as it was then.
Second one of the biggest problems we had was there was a very large drop in funding in the early eighties and that set us back quite a long ways because changing areas of effort and interrupting peoples careers. And so itís very important to not have a precipitous drop. We are currently still spending money from the American Recovery and Reinvestment act and when that money runs out, weíll still have to continue making a strong effort in energy technology policy. As far as where the effort is best spent, weíll look at technologies and that effort will be ready in the fall.
There are several experiments in different ways to manage the technology effort such as the advanced research project from the Agency for Energy, the Energy Innovation Hubs the Frontier Research Centers. It is wise to continue funding those to see how these experiments turn out before interrupting them. And thereís also a missing piece of the innovation effort in that some very late stage demonstration type effort are very expensive and thereís not really a mechanism to fund them not. And so that would be another area that we could fund that could make a big difference.
Your research focuses on investments in innovation in the private sector and in public-private partnerships and youíve worked in the past on business strategies with regard to climate change. †What are some examples of private or public-private partnerships that are good models for investments that would help meet our energy needs and reduce impacts of climate change?
The best examples of these partnerships that have worked are in semiconductors and the computer industry. The semiconductor research corporation and Semi Tech collaborative both had amazing success in making important advances that are credited with saving the U.S. semiconductor industry and are now not just that focused but address international problems. Working especially on pre-commercial resources and have had great success with identifying the problems that need effort and the things that are going to benefit all partners. And we havenít been able to match that kind of success.
Although, there was a great deal of success with a natural gas program. The gas research institute and they had great success with taking what was a very marginal out there technology of cobalt methane and other unconventional sources of natural gas which through their efforts are by now are about half of gas production in the united states. So those kind of efforts which are not a set formula for how its success but that match the problem at hand are the ways that you should model the collaborations we are going to take in energy to get lower carbon and better energy and more secure energy.
How did you first become interested in energy, technology and investments in innovation?
After I got out of the navy, I taught High School physics for about a year, and I really developed a sense of science as a policy area in addition to science as a research area itself. And when I went back to graduate school I was in a public policy program and focused on science policy and all types of science policy topics. But it really turned out to me that the most interesting areas are in biology and medicine and in energy and environment and since my background was in energy and physics, thatís the major area that I though I could do the best with.
You mentioned your time in the navy where you served on a nuclear submarine for nine years. How did this influence your work in energy technology innovation?
A submarine is an operating nuclear power plant in addition to it warship functions. And so thereís a couple of things I took from that, I think about energy technology very much as an operator or sort of an operating engineer rather than the kind of engineer that designs and I think I have that approach of how is it going to be operated by the people who do it. And second a large part of my ideas about all types of industries are sort of an organizational management point of view and thatís my management experience and thatís my management experience, sort of not necessarily general its more like learning from a unique and extreme situation but managing things in the navy was sort of what set me up to think about organizations and businesses.
Third one of my assignments was the construction of the USS Seawolf and on that assignment we tested and supervised and inspected the ship as it was being built by the civilian contractor and so as far as the technology development project, it wasnít some new technology, it was more a great advance in existing technologies. That was the result of a lot of small changes. And the experience I think is that it took not only the design and engineering but also the construction and craftsmanship and the inspection and testing. Its really not just R&D budgets that bring a technology or an improvement around, its all these different working together within different organizations that make this happen.
What led you to the Belfer Center and your work with the Energy Research, Development, Demonstration & Deployment Policy project?
The posting here was actually for an engineering PhD who had interest in public policy and my background, I was a public policy PhD with a background in energy and engineering and I was hoping that that would be good enough to work here. I found that itís a great fit with the Belfer Centerís approach of having people who are doing policy work that have a great understanding about the engineering and the science that affects and is affected by their policy.
In your opinion, what does the future of alternative energy look like?
I think that in the stages that were entering the future now, what we keep looking at is how we can have renewable or alternative or lower carbon energy compete with conventional energies. I think that as we move forward, it will become obvious that those newer energies are a great improvement. In some cases and well move forward to the point were weíll be looking at what types of new improvements in renewable or alternative energies can compete with the existing level kinds of renewable and alternative energy so that weíll know whether were fighting against carbon but whether were getting the best performance that meets the needs for a particular energy from each different type of new or renewable energy.
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