Is Joe Romm an Energy Challenge Denier?

April 7, 2009 | Jesse Jenkins,

Is it just me, or is ClimateProgress blogger Joseph Romm working hard to marginalize himself as he reinforces an increasingly nonsensical position on energy innovation?

Yet again, Romm has recycled his assertions that no new technological development (beyond very minor improvements to existing technologies) is necessary to tackle the massive global energy and climate challenge. He repeats his efforts to label those who call attention to the scale and urgency of our energy innovation challenge and advocate major investments in energy technology as "climate delayer-equivalents." And Romm does so at the exact same time as he plainly ignores -- one might say, denies -- the wide body of evidence and expert consensus that dramatic innovation to spur both incremental and transformative developments in a whole suite of clean energy technologies is critical if we hope to overcome the climate and energy challenge and preserve a prosperous global society.

Perhaps the most striking indication of how at odds Joe Romm's "breakthrough's are totally irrelevant" position is with expert consensus is this: it directly contradicts the public statements of Secretary of Energy Steven Chu (who Romm lavished praise on when he was selected by Obama).

Whether speaking before reporters or the United States Senate, Secretary Chu has not been afraid to directly challenge the myth that today's energy technologies are all we'll need to power a sustainable and prosperous 21st century global economy, nor is he shy about calling for transformative technological innovations in the energy sector.

Testifying before the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee in a hearing in which the Secretary defended President Obama's plans to significantly increase public spending on clean energy innovation, Dr. Chu had this to say (sounding quite familiar):

"Our previous investments in science led to the birth of the semiconductor, computer, and bio-technology industries that have added greatly to our economic prosperity. Now, we need similar breakthroughs on energy. We're already taking steps in the right direction, but we need to do more...

Just as the Breakthrough Institute has repeatedly advocated, Secretary Chu called for public investments in both "transformational research" (as in, "game-changing, as opposed to merely incremental" - Chu's words, not mine) as well as "efforts to demonstrate next-generation technologies and to help deploy demonstrated clean energy technologies at scale." He then went on to pledge:

"We will move forward on all of these fronts and more, as we invest in the transformational research to achieve breakthroughs that could revolutionize our Nation's energy future."

And while Romm has steadfastly maintained that no major technological improvements -- let alone "breakthroughs" -- are needed in core technologies like solar photovoltaics, Secretary Chu directly contradicts Romm in a public conversation the Energy Secretary had with New York Times reporters:

"There should be a new generation of photovoltaics. The photovoltaics we have today, if you say without subsidy, and without even the additional cost of storage, it's about a factor of five higher than electricity generation by gas or coal. Suppose someone comes along and invents a way of getting ... solar photovoltaics at one fifth the cost, so you don't even think about subsidies anymore. You just slap it everywhere... That, in my opinion, would take something, which I would say, is a bit of a breakthrough."

As part of an overall "second industrial revolution" in energy technology, Dr. Chu, a Nobel laureate himself, also called for Nobel-level "breakthroughs" in at least two other core energy technologies: advanced batteries for vehicles "ten times better and cheaper than what we've got" and a new "green revolution" in the design of sustainable crops for biomass energy.

And unlike Romm's pessimistic stance on technology innovation, Secretary Chu expressed a faith that even as we begin to deploy the technologies available today, "science and technology can generate much better choices" in the critical effort to build a sustainable and prosperous global energy economy. "It has, consistently, over hundreds and hundreds of years," the new Energy Secretary said.

So, would Joe Romm say that Steven Chu has fallen into the "breakthrough illusion?" Would he also label Secretary Chu a "climate delayer-equivalent"?

At least one reporter hasn't missed the clear contrasts between those, like Romm, who assert that 'we have all the technologies we need and just lack the political will' and the positions of energy innovation experts like Secretary Chu. In an excellent article on the scale of our energy challenge (now on newsstands), Begley writes:

I regularly get reports from renewable-energy and environmental groups arguing that off-the-shelf technologies, fully deployed, can get us there. In the opposite corner is the Department of Energy, which in December concluded that we need breakthroughs in physics and chemistry that are "beyond our present reach" to, for instance, triple the efficiency of solar panels; DOE secretary Steven Chu has said we need Nobel caliber breakthroughs.

"That is also the view of energy chemist Nate Lewis of the California Institute of Technology," who Begley goes on to interview at length, as well as Mark Muro, policy director of the Brookings Institution's Metropolitan Policy Project, who's proposal to increase energy R&D spending to $20-30 billion annually is highlighted at the end of the article.

"Political will and a price on CO2 won't be enough to bring about low-carbon energy sources" needed to overcome the global energy and climate challenge, Begley concludes. "The clock is ticking," she writes, and as Lewis and Muro argue, investments to accelerate the pace of clean energy innovation are much needed.

Of course, Steven Chu, Nate Lewis and Mark Muro are far from alone in keeping a clear eye towards the scale of our energy innovation challenge and forcefully advocating the kind of massive investments in technology development necessary to overcome it. Charles Weiss and William Bonvillian's excellent new book, Structuring an Energy Technology Revolution nicely sums up what is a broad expert consensus that again runs counter to Romm's anti-innovation stance:

The authors -- both energy innovation experts -- open the introduction to their book by writing:

With or without a carbon price, "[m]arket forces alone cannot provide the pace and scope of innovations required to meet the urgent national need for improved technology for energy supply and efficient end use, and to overcome the huge built-in preferences for existing energy technologies. ...

Public intervention [therefore] should spur and support the private sector, with the objective of speeding the development and deployment of a broad range of future energy technology options considerably faster than would be expected from market forces alone."

That's hardly the heretical position Romm works hard to make it seem.

This position is, of course, also supported by the global energy watchdog, the International Energy Agency, in their landmark Energy Technology Perspectives 2008 report, which Romm hails as "a must read report", and which calls for massive public and private investments in the development and improvement of a whole portfolio of clean energy technologies. The report even specifically identifies innovations and improvements needed in nearly every one of the technologies Romm counts on in his "full global warming solution," including electric and plug-in hybrid vehicles, solar photovoltaics, concentrating solar thermal, nuclear power, and on and offshore wind power.

Clean energy generation technologies necessary to achieve deep emission reductions will require targeted action and innovations in basic science, applied R&D, demonstration, deployment, and commercialization stages. (Image Credit: International Energy Agency, Energy Technology Perspectives 2008)

The famous Stern Review on the economics of climate change similarly concludes (see Chapter 16 on "Accelerating Technological Development") that carbon pricing alone will not be sufficient to reduce emissions at the scale and pace required and that government R&D and early-stage commercialization support will therefore be needed (again, sounds familiar).

President Obama's chief science adviser John Holdren in a "required-reading" essay entitled "The Energy Innovation Imperative," sums up the policy challenge this way:

"The multiplicity of challenges at the intersection of energy with the economy, the environment, and international security--led by the oil-dependence and climate-change challenges just described--add up to a need for policies designed for two

1) to help society find and implement a satisfactory compromise among competing economic, environmental and security objectives--which includes trying to leave the biggest margins of safety against the biggest dangers--given the resources and technologies available at any given time, and

2) to accelerate the processes of energy-technology innovation that, over time, can reduce the limitations of existing energy options, can bring new options to fruition, and thereby can reduce the tensions among energy-policy objectives and enable faster progress on the most critical ones. ...

Without an accelerated transition to improved technologies, societies will find it increasingly difficult-- and in the end probably impossible--either to limit oil imports and oil dependence overall without incurring excessive economic and environmental costs or to provide the affordable energy needed for sustainable prosperity everywhere with-
out intolerably disrupting the Earth's climate.

(Note: upon Holdren's nomination, Romm had this to say: "[Holdren] probably has more combined expertise on both climate science and clean energy technology than any other person who could plausibly have been named science adviser.")

Of course, this same understanding of our energy innovation challenge can be found in various forms in the excellent works of so many leading energy technology and climate experts, including John Alic, Dan Sarewitz, Marty Hoffert, Roger Pielke Jr, Fred Block, Chris Green, Elizabeth Malone, Steve Rayner, Dan Kammen, Greg Nemet, David Douglas, Frank Laird, Jeffrey Sachs, Michael Grubb, the late Richard Smalley and many many more.

At its core, I believe Romm's flat out dismissal of this wide body of expert opinion and evidence is motivated by political considerations. Like all of us, Romm endured eight years of the Bush Administration's efforts to put forward weak and poorly-funded technology-focused initiatives as an "alternative" to any kind of action on the scale demanded by the climate and energy innovation challenges. Romm's anti-innovation position stems from this experience, more than anything, it would appear, one that has clouded his ability to look clearly at this subject anymore. Despite the broad body of evidence and collected works of many many experts, Romm simply cannot bring himself to find a place in his paradigm for a technology-focused approach to climate change, energy security and global poverty alleviation.

The odd thing, is that a powerful technology investment agenda -- not the pathetic version put forward by President Bush -- would strengthen not weaken the political case for the kinds of mandates Romm advocates. As Weiss and Bonvillian argue:

"Regardless of when a technology demand-side program [e.g. cap and trade] is initially imposed, developing a sound innovation system for energy technology will show industry that the transition to alternative energy technologies is feasible, not the pie in the sky they fear, and in this way will help to defuse political opposition to the sound demand-oriented policies that will also be needed to effect the needed energy transition."

Jeffrey Sachs similarly writes in this excellent and brief Scientific American article:

"It is difficult to see how coal-based developing economies such as China and India will subscribe to tight targets on emissions until they know whether CCS actually works. It is difficult to think we will set highly restrictive emissions goals for major industries, such as automobiles, without knowing more about which low-cost technologies will actually work and at what cost. Confidence in the low-emission technologies will feed back into political acceptance of tighter permit systems or higher emissions taxes."

And of course, we at Breakthrough have written extensively about how an effort to make clean energy cheap through technology innovation will help cut through the political opposition facing climate policies and build an effective and politically sustainable policy strategy to confront the urgent climate and energy challenge. For that, we will wear Joe Romm's badge of "climate delayer-equ." with pride.


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By Another comment on 2012 09 12

Breakthroughs are not that far away, with modest investments in R&D for advanced nuclear power. For example, the liquid fluoride thorium reactor (LFTR) can produce electricity cheaper than from coal. This is the only way we will ever convince nations to stop burning coal. You quote Jeffrey Sachs "It is difficult to see how coal-based developing economies such as China and India will subscribe to tight targets on emissions.." as I do in the presentation on the technology and benefits of LFTR. Here is a technology that produces < 1% of the waste of existing nuclear power plants, that runs on inexhaustible (for many millennia) thorium fuel, can burn existing nuclear waste, and is being pursued by hundreds of scientists and engineers, on a voluntary basis, with hardly any R&D funding. Concepts were proven in the 1970s. It now desperately needs funding to actually construct a prototype. Yet a proposal to ARPA-E for a bit over $100,000 to pursue one of the benefits (waste destruction) was rejected. There is a groundswell of consensus that somehow "renewable" or "green" technologies will solve our climate and energy problems, but anything related to "nuclear" is a priori dismissed. Please visit the Aim High presentation about the technology and benefits of the liquid fluoride thorium reactor at

By Robert Hargraves on 2009 08 02

Wilmot, Joe Romm does indeed "support" some investment in R&D in passing, but it's far from "a large increase in R&D funding for clean tech," as you write. In the "Breakthrough Illusion" piece I referenced above Joe Romm writes this (after writing at length about why we don't need, can't count on, and otherwise are wasting our time focusing on transformational innovation):

"Obviously government R&D, and especially first-of-a-kind demonstration programs, are critical before the technology can be introduced to the marketplace on a large scale

By Jesse Jenkins on 2009 04 14

Joe Romm actually recommends a large increase in R&D funding for clean tech. His point in emphasizing deployment, as I understand it, is that time is short and we can't wait for better solutions to be discovered, given what he knows about how the research game is played. He has good grounds for pessimism. So at least have some respect for his sincerity, and give the author of "The Hype about Hydrogen" -- a great book -- a break here.

Pure science research, as pursued at universities and national science labs, should give way to mission-driven research, like the Manhattan Project or the effort that produced the transistor at Bell Labs. Pure science has so far failed to produce anything scalable and realistic to solve the basic problem, which is that the world, especially India and China, needs coal to satisfy the increasing demand for electricity, and there is presently no available CO2 capture and storage (or conversion) technology. DOE research money goes to string theory, supercolliders, hydrogen cars, etc. The academic caste system stands in the way of practical solutions.

We need some way to crowdsource the breakthrough search for post-combustion carbon capture and conversion (viz. "Crowdsourcing," by Jeff Howe (2008)). Maybe BI can help by defining problems and offering incentives for solutions, as InnoCentive does for private industry. (Id. at 42-45).

By Wilmot McCutchen on 2009 04 11

Tim, thanks for the comment as well. Indeed, a variety of policies will be needed, but we also have to be clear about the scale of the challenge and not neglect key priorities, including efforts to dramatically accelerate technological innovation in the energy sector. Please keep commenting and voicing your reactions, questions and responses to our posts. Thanks and take care,

Jesse Jenkins

By Jesse Jenkins on 2009 04 08

Asa, glad you find something of interest here, and it's always good to consult numerous sources. However, I want to point out that we are not, in fact, solely focused on "massive R&D" and have advocated major public investments in the direct deployment of clean energy technologies as well as a modest carbon price as a synergistic measure and a funding mechanism. See most recently, this post: but there's a lot more in our archives I can point you to if you'd like. We're definitely not advocating any delay in deploying current technologies at scale, even while we support the kind of transformational innovation the experts and organizations cited above all advocate. Sincerely,
Jesse Jenkins

By Jesse Jenkins on 2009 04 08

This is why I read both your blog and Joe Romm's (and others). Breakthrough is too quick to diss approaches other than massive R&D, and Romm is focused on exactly those approaches. Now, to find someone making a strong case for cap-(or tax-)and-100%-dividend, and I'll have my bases covered, and never agree with any one of them all the time.

By Asa on 2009 04 08

Great post. I source a lot of stuff from CP for my own blog and learning, and whilst it's still very useful, I find one needs to be able to filter some stuff out.

This is one such instance.
Saving the world will comprise of
-tech breakthrough/innovation
-CO2 signal to market
-energy efficiency
-demand shifting
-energy source from renewables
-smart grid + appliances

Greentech needs to be a system, holistic system.

Tim M
Heresy Snowboarding

By Tim M on 2009 04 08