An expert on the economics of sustainable energy, Richard Newell is the Gendell Associate Professor of Energy and Environmental Economics at the Nicholas School. Currently on a leave of absence, Newell’s new role in the Obama administration utilizes his expertise by putting him at the forefront of solving some of the nation’s most challenging issues. The Chronicle’s Carter Suryadevara recently spoke to the head of the U.S Energy Information Administration about his experiences in Washington D.C.
The Chronicle: What were your primary motivations in accepting your post with the Obama administration?
Richard Newell: I believe I can make a real difference in terms of bringing an informative and analytic viewpoint to energy and environmental decisions. The importance of energy has never been higher and I felt this was a real opportunity to bring my background and interests to the issue.
TC: Do you have any specific objectives or goals you hope to achieve during your time in Washington, D.C.?
RN: Well, there are a number of specific objectives that I have. I’m heading up the U.S. Energy Information Administration, which is the statistical and analytical agency within the Department of Energy. We collect all of the country’s statistics on energy, supply and demand, market, short-term impact, long-term forecast, etc. My dimensions are toward moving the agency toward the next level and excellence in meeting these needs.... As of Oct. 1, I reorganized the agency to improve its ability to keep pace with the changing industry and changing policy. It’s been a major point of focus for me. The reorganization is going to set the institution up in a way that will enable it to excel over the next many years. I think it will have a long-lasting impact.
Another thing I have focused on is increasing the attention of the agency to the many different factors driving energy prices. I’ve also increased attention to the broader public and government for them to better understand the different factors at play.
Another key thing I’ve focused on is our communications ability—our major function is not just in collecting information and analyzing it, but also in making it available to the public in a way that is easy to understand. Our best vehicle for communicating has been the Internet. There are major efforts in place to improve our accessibility through the Internet; we’re launching a website in January, and we’ve also expanded communication through other forms of social media, like twitter feeds.
TC: What are the three biggest challenges we face in trying to become more environmentally responsible?
RN: With regards to energy, one of the biggest challenges is the scale of the energy system itself. The energy system has a significant component of equipment, which is very long lasting and is already in place. Our current system in the United States receives about 83 percent of its energy from fossil fuels. When you have a system that is 83 percent fossil fuels with a significant amount of infrastructure in place already, and if it takes decades for that infrastructure to change, it means that attempts to change the sources of energy will take place over long periods of time. This is our biggest challenge.
When it comes to changing the system, it becomes a political and policy issue, and there are a number of things that influence whether policy makers decide to change it. There are always winners and losers, different political views, and these are the things we face when one asks how the energy system will change over time.
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TC: The economic downturn inevitably had a negative impact on private investing and entrepreneurship in energy research. How has the government responded to keeping the nation on track to becoming energy independent?
RN: I think the major action the administration has taken was part of the Economic Recovery Act, which was a significant response to the economic downturn. A significant amount of resources went to clean energy and energy efficiency investment. This was the most tangible action that the administration took in response to the downturn, and to an extent, it probably kept investment going at a time when it would have otherwise declined significantly. There are also a number of tax credits that have continued, and energy efficiency standards have been implemented for appliances. There are a number of other policies, like loan guarantees, that have continued to bolster clean energy investment. Over the next few years, one of the major questions will be whether or not the money that has been obligated as part of the recovery act will be extended.
TC: What is a realistic time frame for the U.S. to become energy independent?
RN: I think this is going to depend heavily on what happens to policies at both a domestic and international level. Under existing laws and regulations, the energy system is heavily predisposed toward fossil energy sources, which is why the economy is so dependent on these resources. In order for that to change, there must be changes in policies that have not yet taken place. Even if one sought changes to policy, it would take several decades for there to be significant changes in the energy system because automobiles last to the order of 10 to 20 years, power plants from 40 to 50 years and buildings can last for 100 years. When you think about the sources of energy fueling these things, and the technologies that consume these fuels, it does take a significant time for change. I believe a significant degree of patience is necessary.
TC: President Obama faced harsh criticism for his refusal to sign the Kyoto Protocol and for his attempts at changing the Protocol. Critics say this could scrap all plans for a global treaty, or in a best-case situation, delay an agreement until at least 2015. Can you comment on the controversy? What were the major implications in signing the protocol, and what plans do we have in lieu?
RN: I think that much of the attention in the international climate negotiation space has focused on ideas for international cooperation agreement beyond the Kyoto Protocol itself. It’s my sense that the conversation has moved somewhat broader than the Kyoto Protocol at this point. One of the reasons for this is to provide other means of engaging countries like China and other emerging economies. It is also important to understand that the economic downturn has colored the background into which these international negotiations have taken place.