A bit of history – circa October 1995

While going through some files recently I came across several articles from my days in the Bill Clinton Administration, first as Associate Deputy Assistant Secretary and then as Acting Deputy Assistant Secretary for DOE’s Office of Utility Technologies (OUT). This Office had responsibility for developing the full range of renewable electric technologies as well as hydrogen and energy storage technologies. In reading these articles twenty years later I am struck by how my words were in many ways the same then as now. What has changed is the development status of the technologies, their costs, the extent of their deployment, and the enhanced understanding of global warming and its implications for climate change. I have selected two of these articles for republishing in this blog. The first, from 1995, is republished below to provide a bit of historical context for the changes that are occurring today in our energy systems. It was part of a newsletter set up to improve communications between the leadership and staff of OUT. The second, from 1997, will be published in my next blog post. In a subsequent blog post I will offer my thoughts on what Donald Trump’s election as U.S. President could mean for U.S. energy and environmental policies and programs.


From the Desk of the ADAS:
Allan Hoffman
October 1995

”A vision helps us stick to our beliefs and keep going in the face of resistance, chaos, uncertainty and the
inevitable setbacks. ”

In thinking about what to say in this piece, I realized that much of what I say in speeches outside of the
Department is often not shared with my OUT colleagues. So, given this opportunity, let me share some of my
thoughts on the “vision thing” and related ideas that I often introduce in my presentations. Your comments
and reactions will be appreciated – whether by e-mail. memo, telephone or hallway conversation.

I sometimes begin my remarks by observing that it has been approximately one generation since the Oil Embargo of 1973, the point at which world attention began to focus intensively on energy issues. An often quoted rule-of-thumb is that it takes about a generation for new ideas to begin to penetrate the mainstream. This is the point we find ourselves at today for non-hydro renewable electric technologies. Considerable progress has occurred over the past two decades in improving technological performance and reducing associated energy costs of wind, photovoltaic, solar thermal, biomass and geothermal energy systems – e.g., at least a five-fold decrease in the cost of PV electricity, and the availability of highly reliable wind turbines that can generate electricity at 5 cents per kilowatt-hour in moderate wind regimes. This has brought us to a point where, under certain conditions, renewable technologies can be the low cost option for generating power, presaging significant deployment of these technologies in developed as well as developing countries. In addition, increased deployment of renewables is being driven by concern for the environment (e.g., global climate change) and energy security, and the recognition that widespread use of renewables represents markets in the trillions of dollars. To put some numbers into the discussion, the World Bank has estimated that, over the next 30-40 years, developing countries alone will require 5,000,000 megawatts of new generating capacity. This compares with a total world capacity of about 3,000,000 megawatts today. At a capital cost of $1-2,000 per kilowatt, this corresponds to $5-10 trillion, exclusive of associated infrastructure costs. It is the size of these numbers that is generating increased interest in renewables by businesses and the in- vestment community. It is also the reason for the increasing global competition for renewable energy markets. In addition, and very importantly, the environmental implications of that much capacity using fossil fuels, even in the more benign form of natural gas, are severe. If we are to minimize adverse local and global environmental impacts from the inevitable powering up of developing nations, renewable or other forms of non-polluting and non-greenhouse-gas-emitting power systems must be widely used. In the minds of some nuclear power offers a solution, but the scale of nuclear power plants is often not consistent with the needs or financial condition of developing nations, and the social issues that come with the associated handling of plutonium and radioactive wastes need to be carefully considered by society before it embarks on this path.

Given these considerations the prospect that fossil fuel supplies will begin to diminish before the middle
of the next century, and the need to move to sustainable economic systems, I see no alternative to a gradual
but inevitable transition to a global energy system largely dependent on renewable energy. Previous energy
transitions, e.g., from wood to coal and coal to oil, have taken 50 to 100 years to occur, and I see no
difference in this case. I also believe that over this time period, hydrogen will emerge as an important energy
carrier to complement electricity, given its ability to be used in all end use sectors and its benign
environmental characteristics. In this vision, all renewables will be widely used: biomass for fuels and power
generation, geothermal in selected locations for power generation and direct heating, and wind, hydro,
photovoltaics and solar thermal (in its various flavors) for power generation. Particular applications will be
tailored to’particular local situations. Large amounts of renewable power generated in dedicated regions
(e.g., wind in the Midwest and solar in the Southwest) will be transmitted thousands of miles over high voltage
DC power lines to distant load centers. And, electricity and the services it provides will be available to almost
every one on the planet.

One final word: why is it important to have a vision? My answer is that at the beginning of a major transition, one that will surely be resisted by well-entrenched and powerful vested interests, there will be a certain amount of chaos, a large degree of uncertainty, and setbacks. In the words of the late author Barbara Tuchman, “In the midst of events there is no perspective.” This places a heightened responsibility on the OUT staff and others to keep up their efforts to continue improving the technologies and reducing their costs. A vision helps us stick to our beliefs and keep going in the face of the resistance, chaos, uncertainty and the inevitable setbacks.
Without vIsion, very few transformational events in human history would have occurred.