How Improved Talent Practices Can Help the Department of Energy Meet the Moment
This report aims to provide a snapshot of clean energy talent at the Department of Energy and its surrounding orbit: the challenges, successes, and opportunities that the workforce is experiencing at this once-in-a-generation moment.
To compile the findings in this report, FAS worked with nonprofit and philanthropic organizations, government agencies, advocacy and workforce coalitions, and private companies over the last year. We held events, including information sessions, recruitment events, and convenings; we conducted interviews with more than 25 experts from the public and private sector; we developed recommendations for improving talent acquisition in government, and helped agencies find the right talent for their needs.
Overall, we found that DOE has made significant progress towards its talent and implementation goals, taking advantage of the current momentum to bring in new employees and roll out new programs to accelerate the clean energy transition. The agency has made smart use of flexible hiring mechanisms like the Direct Hire Authority and Intergovernmental Personnel Act (IPA) agreements, ramped up recruitment to meet current capacity needs, and worked with partners to bring in high-quality talent.
But there are also ways to build on DOE’s current approaches. We offer recommendations for expanding the use of flexible hiring mechanisms: through expanding IPA eligibility to organizations vetted by other agencies, holding trainings for program offices through the Office of the Chief Human Capital Officer, and asking Congress to increase funding for human capital resources. Another recommendation encourages DOE to review its use to date of the Clean Energy Corps’ Direct Hire Authority and identify areas for improvement. We also propose ways to build on DOE’s recruitment successes: by partnering with energy sector affinity groups and clean energy membership networks to share opportunities; and by building closer relationships with universities and colleges to engage early career talent.
Some of these findings and recommendations are pulled from previous memos and reports, but many are new recommendations based on our experiences working and interacting with partners within the ecosystem over the past year. The goal of this report is to help federal and non-federal actors in the clean energy ecosystem grow talent and prepare for the challenges in clean energy in the coming decades.
The climate crisis is not just a looming threat–it’s already here, affecting the lives of American citizens. The federal government has taken a central role in climate mitigation and adaptation, especially with the recent passage of several pieces of legislation. The bipartisan Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA), the CHIPS and Science Act, and the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) all provide levers for federal agencies to address the crisis and reduce emissions.
The Department of Energy (DOE) is leading the charge and is the target of much of the funding from the above bills. The legislation provides DOE over $97 billion dollars of funding aimed at commercializing and deploying new clean energy technologies, expanding energy efficiency in homes and businesses, and decreasing emissions in a range of industries.
These are robust and much-needed investments in federal agencies, and the effects will ripple out across the whole economy. The Energy Futures Initiative, in a recent report, estimated that IRA investments will lead to 1.46 million more jobs over the next ten years than there would have been without the bill. Moreover, these jobs will be focused in key industries, like construction, manufacturing, and electric utilities.
But those jobs won’t magically appear–and the IIJA and IRA funding won’t magically be spent. That amount of money would be overwhelming for any large organization, and initiatives and benefits will take time to manifest.
When it passed these two bills, Congress recognized that the Department of Energy–and the federal government more broadly– would need new tools to use these new resources effectively. That is why it included new funding and expanded hiring authorities to allow the agencies to quickly find and hire expert staff.
Now it is up to DOE to find the subject matter expertise, talent, partnerships, and cross-sector knowledge sharing from the larger clean energy ecosystem it needs to execute on Congress’s incredibly ambitious goals. Perhaps the most critical factor in DOE’s success will be ensuring that the agency has the staff it needs to meet the moment and implement the bold targets established in the recent legislation.
To implement policy effectively and spend taxpayer dollars efficiently, the federal government needs people. Investing in a robust talent pipeline is important for all agencies, especially given that only about 8% of federal employees are under 30, and at DOE only 4% are under 30. Building this pipeline is critical for the clean energy transition that’s already underway–not only for not the federal government, but for the entire ecosystem. In order to meet clean energy deployment estimates across the country, clean energy jobs will need to increase threefold by 2025 and almost sixfold by 2030 from 2020 jobs numbers. This job growth will require cross-sector investment in workforce training and education, innovation ecosystems, and research and development of new technologies. Private firms, venture capital, and the civil sector can all play a role, but as the country’s largest employer, the government will need to lead the way.
To meet its ambitious policy goals, government agencies need to move beyond stale hiring playbooks and think creatively. Strategies like flexible hiring mechanisms can help the Department of Energy–and all federal agencies–meet urgent needs and begin to build a longer-term talent pipeline. Workforce development, recruitment, and hiring can take years to do right – but mechanisms like tour-of-service models (i.e. temporary or termed positions), direct hire authorities, and excepted service hiring allow agencies to retain talent quickly, overcome administrative bottlenecks, and access individuals with technical expertise who may not otherwise consider working in the public sector. See the Appendix for more information on specific hiring authorities.
This paper outlines insights, strategies, and opportunities for DOE’s talent needs based on the Federation of American Scientists’ (FAS) one-year pilot partnership with the department. Non-federal actors in the clean energy ecosystem can also benefit from this report–by understanding the different avenues into the federal government, civil society and private organizations can work more effectively with DOE to shepherd in the clean energy revolution.
Broadly, we hope that our experience working with DOE can serve as a case study for other federal agencies when considering the challenges and opportunities around talent recruitment, onboarding, and retention.
Where does DOE need talent?
While the IRA and IIJA funded dozens of programs across DOE, there are several offices that received larger amounts of funding and have critical talent needs currently.
A Pilot Partnership: FAS and DOE Talent Efforts
In January 2022, FAS established a partnership with DOE to support the implementation of a broad range of ambitious priorities to stimulate a clean energy transition. Through a partnership with DOE’s Office of Under Secretary for Science and Innovation (S4), our team discovered unmet talent needs and worked with S4 to develop strategies to address hiring challenges posed by DOE’s rapid growth through the IIJA.
This included expanding FAS’s Impact Fellowship program to DOE. This program supports fellows who bring scientific and technical expertise to bear in the public domain, including within government. To date, through IPA (Intergovernmental Personnel Act) agreements, FAS has placed five fellows in high-impact positions in DOE, with another cohort of 5 fellows in the pipeline.
FAS Impact Fellows placed at DOE have proven that this mechanism can have a positive impact on government operations. Current Fellows work in a number of DOE offices, using their expertise to forward work on emerging clean energy technologies, facilitate the transition of energy communities from fossil fuels to clean energy, and ensure that DOE’s work is communicated strategically and widely, among other projects. In a short time, these fellows have had a large impact–they are bringing expertise from outside government to bear in their roles at the agency.
In addition to placing fellows, FAS has worked to evangelize DOE’s Clean Energy Corps by actively recruiting, holding events, and advertising for specific roles within DOE. To more broadly support hiring and workforce development at the agency, we piloted a series of technical assistance projects in coordination with DOE, including hiring webinars and cross-sector roundtables with leaders in the agency and the larger clean energy ecosystem.
From this work, FAS has learned more about the challenges and opportunities of talent acquisition–from flexible hiring mechanisms to recruitment–and has developed several recommendations for both Congress and DOE to strengthen the federal clean energy workforce.
Flexible Hiring Mechanisms
One key lesson from the past year of work is the importance of flexible hiring mechanisms broadly. This includes special authorities like the Direct Hire Authority, but also includes tour-of-service models of employment. A ‘tour-of-service’ position can take many forms, but generally is a termed or temporary position, often full-time and focused on a specific project or set of projects. In times of urgency, like the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic or following the passage of large pieces of new legislation, hiring managers may need high numbers of staff in a short amount of time to implement policy–a challenge often heightened by stringent federal hiring guidelines.
Traditional federal hiring is frustrating for both sides. For applicants, filling out applications is complicated and jargony and the wait times are long and unpredictable. For offices, resources are scarce, there are seemingly endless legal and administrative hoops to jump through, and the wait times are still long and unpredictable. In general, tour-of-service hiring mechanisms offer a way to hire key staff for specific needs more quickly, while offering many other unique benefits, including, but not limited to, cross-sector knowledge sharing, professional development, recruitment tools, and relationship-building.
These mechanisms can also expand the potential talent pool for a particular position–highly trained technical professionals can prove difficult to recruit on a full-time basis, but temporary positions may be more attractive to them. IPA agreements, for example, can last for 1-2 years and take less time to execute than hiring permanent employees or contractors. More generally, all types of flexible hiring authorities can give agencies quicker ways of hiring highly qualified staff in sometimes niche fields. Flexible hiring mechanisms can also reduce the barrier to entry for professionals not as familiar with federal hiring processes–broadening offices’ reach and increasing the diversity of applicants.
FAS’s work with DOE has demonstrated these benefits. With FAS and other organizations, DOE has successfully used IPAs to staff high-impact positions. More recommendations on the use of IPAs specifically can be found in a later section. Through its Impact Fellowship, FAS has yielded successful case studies of how cross-sector talent can support impactful policy implementation in the department.
DOE should expand awareness and use of flexible hiring mechanisms.
DOE should work to expand the awareness and use of flexible hiring mechanisms in order to bring in more highly skilled employees with cross-sector knowledge and experience. This could be achieved in a number of ways. The Office of the Chief Human Capital Office (CHCO) should continue to educate hiring managers across DOE about potential hiring authorities available: they could offer additional trainings on different mechanisms and work with OPM to identify opportunities for new authorities. There are existing communities of practice for recruitment and other talent topics at DOE, and hiring officials can use these to discuss best practices and challenges around using hiring authorities effectively.
DOE can also look to other agencies for ideas on innovative hiring. Agencies like the Department of Homeland Security, Department of Defense, and Department of Veterans Affairs run different forms of industry exchange programs that allow private sector experts to bring their skills and knowledge into government and vice versa. Another example is the Joint Statistical Research Program hosted by the Internal Revenue Service’s Statistics of Income Office. This program brings in tax policy experts on term appointments using the IPA mechanism, similar to the National Science Foundation’s Rotator program. Once developed, these programs can allow agencies to benefit from talent and expertise from a larger pool and access specialized skill sets while protecting against conflicts of interest.
DOE should partner with external organizations to champion tour-of-service programs.
There are other ways to expand flexible hiring mechanism use as well. Program offices and the Office of the CHCO can partner with outside organizations like FAS to champion tour-of-service programs in the wider clean energy community, in order to educate non-federal eligible parties on how they can get involved. Federal hiring processes can seem opaque to outside organizations, with additional paperwork, conflict of interest concerns, long timelines, and potential clearance hurdles. If outside organizations better understand the different ways they can partner with agencies and the benefits of doing so, agencies could increase enthusiasm for programs like tour-of-service hiring. At NSF, for example, the Rotator program is well known in the communities it operates within–both academia and government understand the benefits of participating.
Although these mechanisms and authorities have significant medium- and long-term benefits for agencies, they require upfront administrative effort and cost. Even if staff are aware of potential tools they can use, understanding the logistics, funding mechanisms, conflict of interest regulations, and recruitment and placement of staff hired through these mechanisms often requires investment of time and money from the agency side and can overwhelm already stressed hiring managers.
Congress should increase funding for DOE’s Office of the Chief Human Capital Officer.
In order to support DOE in using flexible hiring mechanisms more effectively, Congress should direct more funding to the agency’s Office of the Chief Human Capital Officer. In FY23, the office has not only continued to execute on mandates from the IIJA and the IRA, but has introduced new programs aimed at modernizing the office and improving on hiring. These programs and tools, including standing up talent teams to better assess competency gaps across program offices and developing HR IT platforms to more effectively make data-driven personnel decisions, are vital to the growth of the office and in turn the ability of DOE to follow through on key executive priorities. Congress should increase funding to DOE’s Human Capital office by $10M in FY24 over FY23 levels. As IRA and IIJA priorities continue to be rolled out, the Human Capital office will remain pivotal to the agency’s success.
Congress should increase DOE’s baseline program direction funds.
A related recommendation is for Congress to further support hiring at DOE by increasing the base budget of program direction funds across agency offices. Restrictions on this funding limits the agency’s ability to hire and the number of employees it can bring on. When offices are limited in the number of staff they can hire, they have tended to bring on more senior employees. This helps achieve the agency’s mission but limits the overall growth of the agency – without early career talent, offices are unable to train a new generation of diverse clean energy leaders. Increasing program direction budgets through the annual appropriations process will allow DOE to have more flexibility in who they hire, building a stronger workforce across the agency.
Clean Energy Corps and the Direct Hire Authority
Expanded Direct Hire Authority has been a boon for DOE, despite some implementation challenges. Congress included DHA in the IIJA, in order to help federal agencies quickly add staff to implement the legislation. In response, DOE set an initial goal of hiring over 1,000 new employees in its Clean Energy Corps, which encompasses all DOE staff who work on clean energy and climate. DOE also requested an additional authority for supporting implementation of the IRA through OPM. To date, the program has received almost 100,000 applications and has hired nearly 700 employees. We have heard positive feedback from offices across the agency about how the DHA has helped hire qualified staff more quickly than through traditional hiring. It has allowed DOE offices to take advantage of the momentum in the clean energy movement right now and made it easier for applicants to show their interest and move through the hiring process. To date, among federal agencies with IIJA/IRA direct hire authorities, DOE has been an exemplar in implementation.
The Direct Hire Authority has been successful so far in part because of its advertisement; there was public excitement about the climate impact of the IIJA and IRA, and DOE took advantage of the momentum and shared information about the Clean Energy Corps widely, including through partnerships with non-governmental entities. For example, FAS and Clean Energy for America held hiring webinars, and other organizations and individuals have continued to share the announcement.
Congress should extend the Direct Hire Authority.
Congress should consider extending the authority past its current timeline. The agency’s direct hire authority under the IIJA expires in 2027, while its authority requested through OPM expires at the end of 2025 – and is capped at only 300 positions. With DOE taking on more demonstration and deployment activities as well as increased community and stakeholder engagement with the passage of the IIJA and IRA, the agency needs capacity–and the Direct Hire Authority can help it get the specialized resources it needs. Extending the authority beyond 2025 and requesting that OPM increase the cap on positions is more urgent, but the authority should continue past 2027 as well, to ensure that DOE can continue to hire effectively.
Congress should expand the breadth of DHA.
Additionally, Congress should expand the authority to other offices across DOE. It is currently limited to certain roles and offices, but there are additional opportunities within the department to support the clean energy transition that don’t have access to DHA. This is especially important given that offices with the direct hire authority can pull employees from offices without–leaving the latter to backfill positions on a much longer timeline using conventional merit hiring practices. Expanding the authority would support the development of the agency as a whole.
Beyond just removing the authority’s cap on roles supporting the IRA, expansions or extensions of the authority should increase the number of authorized positions to account for a baseline attrition rate. The authority limits the number of positions that can be filled – once that number of staff is hired, the authority can no longer be used for that office or agency. As with any workplace, federal agencies experience a normal amount of attrition, but the stakes are higher when direct hire employees leave the organization because of the authority’s constraints. Any authorization of the DHA in the future should consider how attrition will impact actual hires over the authorization period.
In order to bolster support for expanding the authority, DOE can take steps to share out successes of the program. The DHA has been a huge win for federal clean energy hiring, and publicizing news about related programs, offices, funding opportunities, and employees that would not exist but for the support of the Clean Energy Corps would help make the connection between flexible hiring and government effectiveness and would generate excitement about DOE’s activities in the general public.
DOE should highlight success stories of the Clean Energy Corps.
As part of a larger external communications strategy, DOE should highlight success stories of current employees hired through the Clean Energy Corps portal. These spotlights could focus on projects, partnerships, or funding opportunities that employees contributed to and put a face to the achievements of the Clean Energy Corps thus far. Not only would this encourage future high-quality applicants and ensure continued interest in the program, but would also advertise to Congress and the general public that the authority is successful and increase support for more flexible hiring authorities and clean energy funding.
There are also some opportunities to improve DOE’s use of the authority and make it even more effective. With so many applications, hiring managers and program offices are often overwhelmed by sheer volume – leading to long wait times for applicants. Some offices at DOE have tried to address this bottleneck by building informal processes to screen and refer candidates–using their internal system to identify qualified applicants and sharing those applications with other program offices. But there may be additional ways to reduce the backlog of applications.
DOE should conduct a review of DHA’s use thus far.
DOE should conduct an assessment of the use of the Direct Hire Authority in relevant offices. The program has been running for over a year, and there is enough data to review and better understand strengths and areas of growth of the authority. The review could be an opportunity to highlight and build on successful strategies like the informal process above–with program offices who currently use those strategies helping to scale them up. It could also assess attrition rates and compare them to agency-wide and non-DHA attrition rates to understand opportunities to improve or share out successes around retention. Finally, the review could also act as a resource for Congress to help justify the authority’s renewal in the future.
Use of IPA Agreements
One of the most well-known tour-of-service programs is the Intergovernmental Personnel Act. When used effectively, it can allow agencies to share cross-sector knowledge, increase their capacity, and achieve their missions more fully. As noted previously, DOE has made use of IPAs in some capacities, but barriers to expanding the program still exist. First, the DOE maintains a list of ‘IPA-certified’ organizations, including non-profits that must first certify their eligibility to participate in IPA agreements. According to OPM, if an organization has already been certified by an agency, this certification is permanent and may apply throughout the federal government. This is an effective practice that theoretically allows DOE to bring on IPAs from those organizations more quickly – without the additional administrative work necessary to research and vet each organization multiple times.
However, when FAS engaged DOE to expand the Impact Fellowship to the agency, FAS was asked to re-certify its eligibility separately with DOE despite already having conducted IPA agreements with other agencies. As of May 2021, DOE has only approved 22 organizations for IPA eligibility. With the clean energy ecosystem booming, this leaves a large amount of talent potential going untapped.
DOE should amend its IPA directive.
One solution to this issue would be for DOE to amend its IPA directive, which was last updated in 2000, to automatically approve IPA eligibility for organizations that have been certified by other agencies. Agencies such as NSF, USDA, GSA, and others also maintain lists of IPA-eligible organizations, providing DOE a readily available pool of potential IPA talent without certifying those organizations independently. This solution could expand the list of certified organizations and reduce DOE’s internal administrative burden. Organizations that know they will go through an initial vetting process once rather than multiple times could redouble efforts to build that partnership with DOE.
DOE should work with outside organizations to share strategies.
The previous recommendation on educating eligible non-federal organizations on tour-of-service mechanisms applies here as well. Organizations like FAS with a proven track record of setting up IPA agreements with agencies can share best practices, success stories, and champion the program in the broader non-profit ecosystem. However, agencies can also develop externally facing IPA resources, sharing training and ‘how-to’ guides with nonprofits and academic institutions that could be good fits for the program but aren’t aware of their eligibility or requirements to participate.
Recruitment is another area where we learned lessons from our work alongside DOE. FAS and Clean Energy for America held recruitment information sessions for people interested in working for DOE, spotlighting offices who needed more staff. One strategy that helped target specific skill gaps within the agency was developing ‘personas’ based on certain skill sets, like finance and manufacturing. These personas were short descriptions of a specific skill set for an industry, consisting of several highlighted experiences, skills, or certifications that are key to roles in that industry. This enabled our team to develop a more tailored recruitment event, conduct targeted outreach, and execute the event with a more invested group of attendees.
DOE should identify specific skills gaps to target recruitment efforts.
DOE hiring managers and program offices should identify skills gaps in their offices and recruit for those gaps using personas. Personas can help managers more intentionally target outreach and recruit in certain industries by allowing them to advertise to associations, academic programs, or on job boards that include potential applicants with those skills and experiences. This practice could bolster recruitment and reduce the time to hire by attracting more qualified candidates up front. It also helps offices take a more proactive approach to hiring–a difficult ask for hiring managers, who are often overworked.
DOE should continue to utilize remote flexibilities.
Another successful recruitment strategy highlighted in our work with DOE has been the use of remote flexible positions. DOE should continue to widely utilize remote flexibilities in job opportunities and recruitment in order to attract talent from all 50 states, not just those where DOE has a physical presence. As the desire for remote employment remains high across the public and private sector, fully utilizing the remote flexibilities can help federal employers stay competitive with the private sector and attract high-quality talent.
Another area of recruitment where DOE could capitalize further is with more partnerships with non-federal organizations. Outside organizations can leverage their networks–helping expand the talent pool, increase diversity, and support candidates through the federal hiring process, competitive or otherwise. Networks like New York Climate Tech have been tirelessly organizing the climate tech community in New York City, and even plan to start expanding to other cities soon. These types of organizing are invigorating for climate professionals; they can energize existing advocates and evangelize to new ones. Helping connect those networks to government opportunities–whether prize competitions, job opportunities, or grants–can strengthen cross-sector relationships and the clean energy workforce overall.
Such efforts would also support federal recruitment strategies, which are often not as visible as they could be given the sheer amount of work required for proactive outreach. Earth Partners, a climate tech venture capital firm, partnered with the Office of Clean Energy Deployment to hire for high-impact positions by leveraging its own network.
DOE should use partner organizations to broadcast hiring needs.
DOE Office of the Human Capital Officer, hiring managers, or program offices should consider how they can partner with other organizations to broadcast hiring needs. These can be larger clean energy associations and member organizations like Clean Energy for America, New York Climate Tech, FAS, and Climate Power, or they could be energy sector affinity groups like Women In Renewable Industries and Sustainable Energy (WRISE) and the American Association of Blacks in Energy (AABE). Coordinated social media campaigns, partnered recruitment events, or even sending out open positions in those organizations’ regular newsletters could help broaden DOE’s recruitment reach. Because of the momentum in the clean energy community, non-federal organizations have built out substantial recruitment infrastructure for potential applicants and can help publicize positions.
DOE should build a presence at campus hiring events.
Similarly, DOE hiring managers should build and maintain a presence at higher education hiring events. There are a number of ways to bring more early career staff into government, but DOE can focus on recruiting more intentionally from universities and community colleges. The agency should cultivate relationships with university networks–especially those of Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) and Minority Serving Institutions (MSIs)–and develop recruitment messages that appeal to younger populations. DOE could also focus on universities with strong clean energy curricula–in the form of recognized courses and programs or student associations.
DOE should expand partnerships with external recruitment firms.
Some positions, of course, are harder to recruit for. In addition to mid-level employees, government also needs strong senior leaders–candidates for these positions don’t often come in droves to recruitment events. Some DOE offices have found success with using private recruitment firms to identify candidates from the private sector and invite them to apply for Senior Executive Service (SES) level positions in government. This practice, in addition to bringing in specific executive recruitment, also helps career private-sector applicants navigate the government hiring process.
DOE should learn from current strategies and continue to partner with private recruitment firms to identify potential SES candidates and invite them to apply. Using recruitment firms can help simplify position description language and help guide candidates through the process. DOE currently uses this successfully for certain skill set gaps, but should seek to expand the practice for recruitment needs that are more specific.
DOE should develop its own senior talent recruitment strategy.
Longer term, DOE should develop its own senior talent recruitment strategy. This strategy can be developed using lessons learned from private recruitment firms or from meeting with other agencies to understand best practices in the space. SES positions require different candidate management strategies, and if DOE aims to attract more non-federal talent, developing in-house expertise is important.
DOE already has the infrastructure for strategies like this. Offices involved in IIJA implementation are building office-specific recruitment strategies. These strategies consider diversity, equity, inclusion and accessibility, as well as skill sets and high-need positions within offices. Incorporating senior talent needs into these strategies could help uncover best practices for attracting quality leaders, and expanding these recruitment strategies beyond just IIJA-oriented offices could support workforce development across the agency more broadly.
The Path Forward
DOE has made significant progress on the road to implementation, hiring hundreds of new employees to support the clean energy transition and carry out programs from IIJA, IRA, and the CHIPS and Science Act. The agency still faces challenges, but also opportunities to grow its workforce, improve its hiring processes, and bring in even more high-quality, skilled talent into the federal government. We hope DOE and Congress will consider these recommendations as they continue to work toward a stronger clean energy ecosystem in the years to come.
Appendix: Overview of hiring authorities
The Intergovernmental Personnel Act (IPA) Mobility Program that allows temporary assignment of personnel between the federal government and state/local/tribal governments, colleges/universities, FFRDCs, and approved non-profit organizations. According to a 2022 Government Accountability Office report, IPAs are a high-impact mechanism for bringing talent into the federal government quickly, yet they’re often underutilized. As detailed in the report, agencies’(including DOE) can use the IPA Mobility Program to address agency skills gaps in highly technical or complex mission areas, provide talent with flexibility and opportunities for temporary commitments, and can be administratively light touch and cost effective, when the program is implemented correctly. The report noted that agencies struggled to use the program to its full effectiveness, and that there’s an opportunity for agencies to increase their use of the program, if they can tackle the challenges.
The Direct Hire Authority allows agencies to directly hire candidates for critical needs or when a severe shortage of candidates exists. This authority circumvents competitive hiring and candidates preferences, allowing agencies to significantly reduce the time involved to hire candidates. It also presents an easier application process for candidates. DHA must be specially granted by OPM unless a governmentwide authority already exists–as it does for Information Technology Management, STEM, and Cybersecurity. For example, DOE was granted a DHA for positions related to implementing the IIJA and IRA.
EJ and EK
EJ and EK hiring authorities are a form of “excepted service” unique to DOE. According to DOE, the EJ authority is used to enhance the Department’s recruitment and retention of highly qualified scientific, engineering, and professional and administrative personnel. Appointments and corresponding compensation determined under this authority can be made without regard to the civil service laws.” The EK authority is similar, but more specific to personnel whose duties will relate to safety at defense nuclear facilities of the Department. The EK authority is time-limited by law and must be renewed.
Also known as the “fellowship authority,” Schedule A(r) facilitates term appointments for 1 to 4 years. This authority is especially helpful for:
- “Professional/industry exchange programs that provide for a cross-fertilization between the agency and the private sector to foster mutual understanding, an exchange of ideas, or to bring experienced practitioners to the agency.”
- “Positions established in support of fellowship and similar programs that are filled from limited applicant pools and operate under specific criteria developed by the employing agency and/or a non-federal organization.
Experts and Consultants
According to the department’s HR resources, DOE uses Experts and Consultants to, “provide professional or technical expertise that does not exist or is not readily available within DOE or to perform services that are not of a continuing nature and/or could not be performed by DOE employees in competitive or other permanent full-time positions.” Typically, Expert and Consultants can be used for intermittent, part-time, or term-limited, full-time roles.
Understanding and using these flexible hiring authorities can help DOE expand its network of talent and hire the people it needs for this current moment. More details on flexible hiring mechanisms can be found here.
The past few years have seen a surge of climate and clean energy legislation at the federal level. The bipartisan Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA), the CHIPS and Science Act, and the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) have changed what’s possible for the US when it comes to fighting climate change, deploying innovative clean energy technologies, and moving towards a net-zero world.
Of course, passing the legislation is only the first step. Since the passage of the above packages, federal agencies have been working around the clock to carry out the mandates within. Agencies like Commerce, EPA, DOE, Agriculture, Transportation, and more have been releasing funding opportunities, holding prize competitions, setting up grants and rulemaking processes, developing guidance, and trying to distribute resources as quickly and as equitably as possible.
The federal government has been hugely successful in many ways in implementing these massive bills. But there have also been – and will continue to be – bumps along the way. As quickly as agencies have been moving, they are still bound by regulations and other constraints, and just can’t move as quickly as other sectors are able to – in many cases, for good reason.
And time is of the essence – many of the provisions in the legislation have deadlines. Even if they’re a decade away, it still lends urgency to the situation. In addition to strict deadlines, there are also political deadlines. Congress is already moving to claw back items from the past few years, and faces a major election only just over a year away. Although the bills are law, there are multiple ways critics could continue to undermine their original intent and funding.
So implementation is critical – in order to take advantage of the current moment, resources, and crossroads, we need the federal government to act. If they’re not able to, we’ll lose out on key benefits and growth of the coming years.
Major Implementation Barriers
But federal, state, and local governments face hurdles when it comes to putting these laws into action. These hurdles are not unique to the IIJA and IRA, although many agencies were not organizationally prepared for the sheer amount of funding from the bills and now struggle to catch up. Some barriers, like long rulemaking or stakeholder engagement processes, ensure that agencies stay accountable and thoroughly research program impacts. But others are more bureaucratic or technical, and need institutional streamlining, innovation, or cross-sector support.
For example, the IRA tasked the Department of the Treasury and the IRS with rolling out a number of energy-focused tax credits. Private firms, state governments, and other targets of the credits are eager to take advantage of the benefits, as the credits have the potential to supercharge clean energy industries. However, many of the guidelines are still unclear; feedback loops are slow and cumbersome, and companies and consumers are confused about what qualifies when.
Another example is permitting. Permitting reform is not a new issue, but the demand for new clean energy projects and the potential strain on an outdated electric grid mean that the need for better processes is dire. Long timelines, major application backlogs, and struggles to get community buy-in could prevent us from seeing the full benefits of the IRA.
While there are many possible solutions to these bottlenecks – involving cross-sector support from companies, community-based organizations, state and local governments, and more – one of the major issues underpinning the barriers to successful implementation is simply talent.
Large injections of funding like with the IIJA and IRA without the people power to deliver on legislation can result in slow implementation, undermining the intentions of the bills. It’s not just numbers – but getting high-quality employees with technical skill sets in the door quickly. It’s true for the above examples as well. Developing guidance for tax credits requires a large number of niche experts: tax attorneys with a keen understanding of a range of clean energy technologies. Similarly with permitting, regulations change across municipalities and states, and agencies don’t have enough staff to adjudicate applications at the rate the private sector is developing projects.
FAS has focused on talent for a number of years – our Impact Fellowship helps place that type of high-quality technical expertise where it’s needed most in government. Our forthcoming in-depth report on hiring barriers within the Department of Energy details a number of strategies DOE and other agencies can use to hire more effectively.
DOE has been a leader in hiring specifically to support the IIJA and IRA. Its Clean Energy Corps has hired over 600 people in the past year and a half, and the agency has stood up entire new offices like the Office of Clean Energy Demonstrations. In the report we use the agency as an example of how these flexible hiring strategies can strengthen federal talent acquisition further and take advantage of the current momentum around climate and clean energy.
Some of these strategies ask Congress to act – like increasing human capital budgets and expanding specific hiring authorities. But others are within the agency’s control, like using remote work flexibilities as a recruitment tool and using other authorities like the Intergovernmental Personnel Act more widely. Partnerships with outside entities, like clean energy workforce organizations, private recruitment firms, and higher education institutions can all provide talent support to agencies as well.
These strategies are directly linked to helping DOE implement legislation more efficiently and effectively–and should be used by other agencies as well. A focus on talent and strengthening the federal workforce is necessary to take full advantage of the current moment.
As a result of human activity, greenhouse gas emissions are increasing so rapidly that climate disaster is imminent. To avoid catastrophe, all economic sectors––industry, agriculture, transport, buildings, and electricity––require immediate energy and climate policy solutions. Only with a resilient and renewable, bipartisan, clean, and reliable partner can America fully decarbonize its economy and avert the devastating effects of climate change. As America’s clean energy transformation proceeds, there is one energy technology up for the task across all these sectors––geothermal.
Geothermal is the energy source naturally produced by the Earth. It is a proven technology with decades of utilization across the United States, including New York, Idaho, North Dakota, California, Arkansas, New Mexico, and everywhere in between.
Government agencies and academic institutions have already identified more than enough untapped Earth-powered energy in the United States alone to meet the nation’s energy needs while also achieving its emissions goals. In fact, the total amount of heat energy in the Earth’s crust is many times greater than the energy available globally from all fossil fuels.
Despite these benefits, geothermal represented just 0.4% of total U.S. utility-scale electricity generation in 2021 and only 1% of the residential and commercial building heating and cooling market. What is holding geothermal back is a lack of policy attention at both the federal and state levels. Geothermal has been drastically underfunded and continues to be left out of energy, climate, and appropriations legislation. By acting as the primary facilitator and coordinator for geothermal technology policy and deployment, the U.S. government can significantly accelerate the clean energy transformation.
Our Empowering the Geothermal Earthshot proposal is a multibillion dollar interagency effort to facilitate the energy revolution America needs to finally solve the climate crisis and complete its clean energy transformation. This top-down support would allow the geothermal industry to fully utilize the power of the free market, commercialize innovation into mass production, and scale technologies.
Challenge and Opportunity
Geothermal energy––clean renewable energy derived from the unlimited heat in the Earth––is a proven technology that can contribute to achieving aggressive climate goals but only if it gets much-needed policy support. Geothermal urgently requires the same legislative and executive attention, policy momentum, and funding that all other energy technologies receive. The Biden Administration as well as Republicans and Democrats in Congress need to lift up the profile of geothermal on par with other energy technologies if we are to reach net-zero by 2050 and eventually 24/7 carbon-free energy.
On day one of his administration, President Biden charged his National Climate Task Force to utilize all available government resources to develop a new target for reductions in greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. As a result, in April 2021 the Biden Administration announced an aggressive new GHG target: a 50% reduction from 2005 levels by 2030. To meet this challenge, the administration outlined four high-priority goals:
- Invest in clean technology infrastructure.
- Fuel an economic recovery that creates jobs.
- Protect our air and water and advance environmental justice.
- Do this all in America.
Geothermal energy’s primary benefits make it an ideal energy candidate in America’s fight against climate change. First, geothermal electricity offers clean firm, reliable, and stable baseload power. As such, it easily complements wind and solar energy, which can fluctuate and produce only intermittent power. Not only does geothermal energy offer more resilient and renewable energy, but––unlike nuclear and biomass energy and battery storage––it does so with no harmful waste by-products. Geothermal energy does not depend on extractive activities (i.e., mining) that have a history of adversely impacting the environment and Indigenous communities. The underlying energy source––the literal heat beneath our feet––is local, is 100% American, and has demonstrated gigawatt-scale operation since the 1980s, unlike every other prospective clean energy technology. Geothermal energy offers a technology that we can export as a service provider and manufacturer to the rest of the world to reduce global GHG emissions, increase U.S. energy independence, and improve the country’s economy and national defense.
Additionally, climate change continues to change outside air temperatures and weather patterns impacting building energy consumptions (e.g., heating and cooling), which are expected to increase. Geothermal heating and cooling meets these demands by providing reliable and distributed electricity generation, winter heating, and summer cooling. Geothermal heating and cooling offer solutions to other economic sectors that produce harmful carbon and methane emissions.
Getting to net-zero by 2050––and eventually to 24/7 carbon-free energy––is a community problem, a public sector problem that affects America’s public health, economic survival, and national security. We can get here if geothermal is provided the same opportunities that the government has afforded all other energy technologies.
Geothermal Energy: The Forgotten Energy Technology
Today, geothermal power production is at the same developmental stage that oil production was 100 years ago. Geothermal power production has been proven at gigawatt scale, but in a limited range of locations where conventional hydrothermal systems are easily accessible. Petroleum drilling in the United States began in 1859 and expanded first in places where oil was visible, easily identifiable, and quickly accessible. In the 150 years since, continuous market support from governments and societies has allowed the fossil fuel economy not just to continue but to expand through technology innovation. Fossil fuel technologies have matured to the point where engineers regularly drill seven to eight miles underground, drill in deep ocean water, and utilize efficient recovery technologies such as steam-assisted gravity drainage.
Geothermal carries the same potential to drive new technologies of energy production and enable huge increases in energy recovery and output. However, unlike the petroleum industry, geothermal energy has never received comparable and effective policy support from the federal and state governments to drive this needed technology development, innovation, and deployment. As a result, the geothermal industry has been left behind in the United States.
Ironically, the fact that geothermal technologies have a long and successful track record has kept them out of the “new technology” focus that has been central to clean energy transition policy discussions.
Other technologies (e.g., hydro, solar, hydrocarbons, nuclear, biofuels, and wind) receive tens of billions of dollars each year to develop a path to continued, preferred, and widespread use, which generates commercialization, scalability, and profit. However, similar investment strategies have not been dedicated to geothermal energy infrastructure development.
The United States needs critical capital investments to reach the vast amount of untapped Earth energy scientists have identified, expand the range of places where geothermal resources are possible, and lower the cost of geothermal drilling and production. Public investment will promote technologies such as heating and cooling systems that use individualized geothermal heat pumps (GHP) or district thermal systems. Significant public investment is needed in electricity generation technologies such as closed-loop, deep super hot rock, and enhanced systems (EGS). And of course, public and private investments are needed to help manufacturing and agricultural processes switch from fossil fuels to geothermal.
Investing in Our Future: Empowering the Geothermal Earthshot
Thankfully, investing in America’s energy infrastructure is a priority of our current presidential administration. As indicated in the April 2021 White House Fact Sheet and supported by Executive Order 14057 and the Department of Energy (DOE) Enhanced Geothermal Earthshot announced in September 2022, the Biden Administration realizes the need to marshal federal resources in a coordinated effort.
However, to fully realize and build upon the administration’s clean energy objectives, this proposal urges a holistic approach to empower geothermal deployment. The Enhanced Geothermal Earthshot falls short of the effort required to empower geothermal and scale a solution to draw down the climate crisis because it focuses on a single geothermal technology and involves just one federal agency. Instead, a whole-of-geothermal approach that harnesses the power of the entire federal government is necessary to create ambitious, positive, and widespread changes in America’s energy landscape and subvert the current fossil fuel status quo. The following action plan will usher in the geothermal era and ensure the United States meets its climate objectives and completes the clean energy transformation.
Plan of Action
The Biden Administration must set the targets and the agenda, propose policy and tax support, negotiate for appropriations, and issue regulatory support that allows commercialization and deployment of every possible Earth-powered technology solution. These steps will set up the market conditions for the private sector to commercialize and scale these proven technologies and new innovations.
Creating policies and programs to support geothermal applications and technologies will accelerate the clean energy transformation and end our dependence on hydrocarbons. The U.S. government can usher in a new age of clean, renewable, and local energy through a combination of innovation, programs, and institutionalization. These are outlined in the recommendations detailed below.
Recommendation 1. Empower a Holistic Geothermal Earthshot
The Biden Administration should build upon and broaden the Enhanced Geothermal Earthshot to reduce the cost of EGS by 90% to $45 per megawatt hour by 2035. The administration should set a target for geothermal heat pumps and district thermal systems to reach 35% of U.S. energy consumption by 2035 and electricity generation to reach 10% of energy consumption by 2035. These objectives are in response to the administration’s carbon reduction goals for 2030 and 2050. To begin this initiative, President Biden––joined by the Secretaries of Energy, the Interior, Commerce, Defense, and Agriculture, as well as special climate and environment envoys and advisors and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) administrator, among others—should formally usher in a reimagined and holistic Geothermal Earthshot that leverages a whole-of-government approach.
Recommendation 2. Institutionalize and Coordinate Earth Energy Support
Create the Office of Earth Energy (OEE) at DOE through the president’s annual budget proposal. The OEE’s mission will be to coalesce federal and state governments, familiarize the public, and support all types of Earth-powered energy technologies.
- Model the OEE after the DOE’s Office of Nuclear Energy (ONE) and Office of Fossil Energy and Carbon Management (OFECM)
- Inaugurate an Assistant Secretary for Earth Energy to oversee OEE who will report to the DOE’s Undersecretary for Science and Innovation
- Establish three deputy assistant secretaries (DAS) for:
- Low temperature (i.e., direct heat/GHP-GSHP/agriculture/industry)
- Power generation (i.e., enhanced, advanced, conventional)
- Technology R&D (i.e., super hot rock)
- Structure OEE to have branches promoting and supporting Earth-powered systems and solutions by economic sector: industry, agriculture, transport, buildings, and electricity
- OEE annual appropriations of no less than $1.78 billion for operations, research, development, demonstration, and deployment (this funding level is on par with the other energy offices at DOE on which the OEE is modeled)
- Sharpen the focus of the existing Geothermal Technologies Office to be an EGS-specific branch of the power generation DAS within the OEE
Existing DOE offices such as ONE and OFECM offer a proven template from which to model OEE. Geothermal’s potential to address the climate crisis and become a significant part of the cooling/heating and electricity mix in the United States requires significant growth of support within the federal government. The organizational structure of the federal government is imperative to spearhead geothermal development. Raising the awareness and profile of geothermal within the government requires higher-level offices and more senior-level personnel supporting, evaluating, and studying the industry. The three DAS subject-matter designations represent the three overarching applications of geothermal technologies.
Interagency coordination should be led by a Senior Director for Earth-Powered Energy within the National Security Council (NSC). Programs and initiatives involve executive agencies and offices, including DOE, Department of Defense (DOD), Department of Agriculture, Department of Commerce, Department of the Interior (DOI), Office of Science and Technology Policy, Office of Management and Budget, NSC, Domestic Policy Council, Department of State, and EPA, among others.
Recommendation 3. Accelerate Geothermal Innovation
The following innovation accelerator concepts can help unlock technical hurdles and unleash private sector thinking to expand the reach of geothermal energy applications. The needed primary research fits into three broad categories: streamlining existing geothermal energy development and reducing risk, technology innovations to support massively scaling the potential range and total energy available from the Earth, and technical refinements to optimize every Earth energy application.
For example, work is needed to reduce technical risk and predictability in siting geothermal wells to make drilling a geothermal well as predictable and repeatable as it is for oil and gas wells today. Reduced risk and greater predictability is critical to private sector investment support.
Commercial and residential heat pumps and district heating systems need R&D support to improve deployability in urban settings and to maximize both heating and cooling efficiency.
Enhanced geothermal systems—those that expand traditional hydrothermal power generation to less permeable locations—have received modest public sector support for several decades but need greater and more focused application of technologies that were developed for oil and gas during the fracing expansion.
Achieving massive scalability for geothermal power means developing technologies that can operate well beyond traditional hydrothermal system locations. Closed-loop and other advanced geothermal technologies promise access to energy anywhere there is heat, but all are currently at the earliest stages of their technology lifecycles and operating without major public sector research support
All of these use cases would benefit from a concerted, government-funded research effort, shared access to innovation and best practices, and a clear path to commercialization.
(A) Propose in the president’s annual budget a geothermal bureau, program, or focus area within the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E) dedicated to promoting all types of geothermal innovations, from low- to high-temperature cooling/heating and electricity applications. ARPA-E “advances high-potential, high-impact energy technologies that are too early for private-sector investment.” Use this program to support research into new or expanded ways to use Earth energy that are too early or speculative for private sector investment and bring them to the point of commercialization.
(B) Create a new venture capital entity to accelerate commercialization of geothermal innovations by aggressively investing in geothermal-related technologies. Model it on the existing In-Q-Tel organization that has been very successful in driving national security technology development. This would be a new venture capital funding entity focused on commercializing Earth power technology innovation from U.S. government-funded research and development initiatives (e.g., the ARPA-E projects described above) and on exploring technology solutions to problems that remain unsolved across government, industry, and society yet are critically important for dealing with climate change.
(C) Create a public-private Geothermal Center of Excellence (GeoExcel) at a DOE national lab. A sustained and robust public-private research program is essential for innovation, and many agencies leverage private sector investment through publicly funded centers of excellence. Currently, geothermal research is conducted haphazardly and incoherently across U.S. government agencies and DOE national labs such as Idaho National Lab, Sandia National Labs, Lawrence Berkeley Lab, U.S. Geological Survey, National Renewable Energy Lab, Brookhaven National Lab, Argonne National Lab, National Energy Technology Lab, and many more. To augment research within its national lab apparatus, DOE should establish GeoExcel to develop the technology necessary to produce low-cost geothermal power, cooling/heating, and mineral recovery such as lithium, manganese, gold, and silica. GeoExcel would also conduct education outreach and workforce development. GeoExcel would be a multibillion-dollar public-private partnership competitively awarded with multiyear funding. It would interact closely with one or two DOE national labs as well as federal, state, regional, and municipal government agencies, research universities, community college, nonprofits, and the private sector.
Recommendation 4. Create Earth Energy-Specific Programs and Policies
The following programs, funding, and regulatory suggestions should be proposed in the president’s budget and funded or authorized through congressional appropriations or moving authorization legislation. Some recommendations can be achieved through updating rules and regulations.
Programmatic: DOE Demonstration Projects
The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA) appropriated $20 billion for demonstration projects, including those for hydrogen, direct air capture, and large-scale carbon capture. This funding provides vital capital to incentivize, commercialize, and scale public-private partnerships using the benefits of the free market to build major infrastructure projects that will expand clean energy and advance the energy transformation. The IIJA did not direct any funding specifically for geothermal technologies; yet geothermal provides the critical clean firm and renewable baseload energy that complements intermittent technologies, can be coupled to produce green hydrogen, and empowers direct air capture infrastructure. As part of its criteria for selecting applications for demonstration project funding, Congress should clarify and/or DOE should expressly include and announce that geothermal technology will receive significant demonstration appropriations funded through the IIJA.
Funding: Risk Mitigation and Management
Commercial investment in new technology hinges on risk assessment. Removing risk from new geothermal ventures will facilitate faster commercial-scale deployment and, in turn, lower risk as more projects are completed. Propose a $2 billion risk mitigation fund within the DOE’s OEE specific for district cooling/heating and electricity drilling and exploration projects. This geothermal risk mitigation fund would provide loans to cover a portion (i.e., 60%) of the drilling cost that can be converted into grants if development of the geothermal field is unsuccessful. To minimize losses, a premium can be charged to ensure a positive return based on risk and set limits on total wells covered and monetary claims to limit losses.
This risk mitigation and management structure has been successfully implemented for geothermal projects in Kenya, Iceland, and Costa Rica, countries in the top five of geothermal energy production per capita. To further reduce risk, the OEE should only consider projects that have already completed some exploratory drilling. Before administering commercial debt financing, the OEE should also require these projects to receive concessional risk mitigation support prior to advancing with additional drilling, district cooling/heating system construction, or power plant construction.
Funding: Rural Development
Propose a $450 million Department of Agriculture Rural Development grant program to transition agricultural and industrial cool/heat applications from burning fossil fuels to Earth energy generation. This funding can be used to decarbonize over two million cooling and heating systems used in the agricultural sector in rural America. Agricultural activities such as food processing, pulp and paper manufacturing, vegetable dehydration, dairy processing, aquaculture, greenhouses, processing sugar, and much more can transition to the clean energy economy.
Funding: Community Development
Propose a $750 million grant program to be implemented by the Department of Commerce Economic Development Administration. Grants will be made for high- and low-temperature geothermal developers to partner with municipalities, electric or energy cooperatives, community choice aggregators, and public utilities servicing America’s communities to develop geothermal resources. This funding level could generate between 375 and 500 megawatts of electricity to power between 280,000 and 375,000 households or over 3,500 megawatts of cooling/heating energy and decarbonize two to three million households and commercial businesses around the country. It is important that the clean energy transition equitably and justly empower rural American communities along with urban and suburban communities.
Funding: Tribal Development
Fund a $275 million grant program through the proposed OEE at DOE or the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) at DOI to support tribal nations to develop geothermal resources on their lands, such as electricity generation, industrial and agricultural decarbonization, residential and commercial GHPs or district cooling/heating installations, and recreation. This funding could be used to generate up to 183 megawatts of electricity or 1,375 megawatts of thermal energy for use on tribal lands. Native Americans used geothermal resources for thousands of years before European settlement. Today, tribal lands are the backbone of mineral exploitation, agriculture, industry, and power production in America. These OEE or BIA funds will facilitate the clean energy transition on tribal lands using geothermal resources.
Funding: Military Construction
Propose a $2.6 billion program for distributed geothermal power and cooling/heating projects on military installations across the United States and abroad. The Air Force recently selected two military installations to deploy geothermal energy. In an increasingly contested clean energy economy, we should build secure and resilient military infrastructure using local Earth energy technologies directly on military installations. DOD can use the funding to generate a combination of up to 1,733 megawatts of electricity or 13,000 megawatts of thermal energy to offset its massive carbon footprint from 500 fixed installations, which includes 300,000 buildings. This investment will help all service branches and DOD reach the Biden Administration’s renewable energy generation goals. This funding begins the vital transformation to secure the energy infrastructure of military installations through energy independence and protect our national security interests at home and abroad. Energy and mineral security are paramount for our national security.
Funding: Smithsonian Institution
Geothermal energy is a story of the forgotten energy technology. Propose $25 million for the Smithsonian Institution to memorialize and narrate the history and future of geothermal energy in the United States. Museums familiarize and educate policymakers and the public about the past, present, and future of America. Permanent exhibitions in museums along the National Mall in Washington, DC, will help promote the potential of geothermal resources to policymakers as is already done with other energy technologies featured by the Smithsonian Institution.
Funding: Workforce Development and Community Colleges
The future of the clean energy transformation rests in the education of Americans and a smooth workforce transition of oil and gas professionals into the clean energy economy. Community colleges play a vital role in this transition. Allocate $300 million for the Department of Education to award grants to technical and vocational programs to develop and build geothermal-specific skill sets and needs into curriculums. These geothermal programs will build upon and expand existing programs such as drill rig crew member training programs like that at Houston Community College in Texas or cooling/heating apprenticeship programs like those at Mercer Community College in New Jersey or Foothills College in California. The objective of these grants is to amplify the capabilities of geothermal technologies and deepen the knowledge of professionals who install, sell, market, or manufacture products that could transition to geothermal technologies and away from burning fossil fuels.
Funding: Convert Abandoned Oil and Gas Wells
Expand the authorities of the Leaking Underground Storage Tank (LUST) Trust Fund within the EPA to include the conversion of existing and abandoned oil and gas fields into geothermal wells. The LUST Trust Fund is financed by a 0.1 cent tax on each gallon of motor fuel sold nationwide. Oil and gas wells can be retrofitted or reworked to provide geothermal cooling/heating for low-to-no-carbon direct use opportunities or generate power. Due to the years of development at these sites, the reservoir is well understood, thereby lowering risks and cost of exploration. Alternatively, this program could be a direct grant program funded through the proposed OEE within DOE or through EPA.
Regulatory: Geothermal Permitting Application Processing
Applications to conduct geophysical exploration are currently reviewed by the district office within the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) at DOI that has geographic jurisdiction over the specific geothermal project. Yet many district offices are unfamiliar with the technical aspects of geothermal development, causing significant delays in the review process. Fund $15 million for a national office with a dedicated geothermal team to develop training materials and standard operating procedures and to provide technical support to district offices to ensure timely review of geothermal power and cooling/heating projects on federal lands. Programs that cross-train staff will also improve the ability to coordinate between different agencies and offices.
Regulatory: Categorical Exclusions for Geothermal Projects
Several activities involved in geothermal resource development have no significant environmental effects yet lack an existing categorical exclusion under the National Environmental Policy Act. BLM’s regulations include only one categorical exclusion for geophysical exploration when no temporary or new road construction is required (43 CFR 4 3250); however, it does not cover resource confirmation activities. As a consequence, federal agencies take several months to approve what could be done in a matter of days via a categorical exclusion. Congress has recognized the need to improve the permitting process for geothermal production and introduced several bills to authorize categorical exclusions (i.e., S. 2949, S. 2824, and H.R. 5350).
Tax Support: Cooling and Heating
Propose a 40% tax incentive for residential and commercial building installation of geothermal heat pumps and extend the lifespan of these incentives through 2050, the date set to reach net zero emissions economy-wide. Additionally, the Biden Administration should publicly clarify or amend Presidential Determination No. 2022-18 of Section 303 of the Defense Production Act to include geothermal heat pumps.
Tax Support: Power
Geothermal electricity generation has traditionally been capital-intensive, and investment decisions depend in part on the predictability of tax incentives. This trend is best illustrated by the 1978 passage of the Public Utility Regulatory Policies Act (PURPA). This legislation’s tax consequences created more favorable conditions and a more robust market for renewable-energy suppliers. As a result, PURPA allowed the United States to rapidly increase its geothermal capacity throughout the 1980s.
Rapid deployment and growth after the passage of PURPA illustrates the impact of public policy on geothermal innovation and investment. However, renewable energy tax incentives provided in the Inflation Reduction Act of 2022 had intermittent energy and battery storage in mind when drafted. These tax incentives do not adequately support geothermal power development due to sunset clauses. The president’s budget as well as congressional appropriators and authorizers should extend the availability of the 30% Investment Tax Credit (ITC) and 2.6 cents per kWh for the Production Tax Credit (PTC) using a market approach akin to that proposed in the bipartisan Energy Sector Innovation Credit (ESIC) Act authored by Senators Whitehouse (D-RI), Crapo (R-ID), Barrasso (R-WY), Bennet (D-CO), and Hickenlooper (D-CO) as well as Representatives Reed (R-NY) and Panetta (D-CA).
The ITC and PTC are written with intermittent energy technologies in mind. Geothermal requires a tax incentive structure that does not sunset after two or 10 years but rather automatically scales down credits as geothermal technologies’ market penetration ramps up. The ESIC scale down should begin when geothermal reaches 10% market penetration instead of 2%. This empowers the free market to play a major role in commercialization and scaling geothermal technologies and provides much-needed predictability and planning for the geothermal industry. It also ensures taxpayer dollars do not subsidize market-mature technologies as they currently do for all other energy technologies such as hydrocarbon, solar, wind, and nuclear projects.
We can find geothermal energy just below our feet, literally everywhere. It provides 24/7 carbon-free power, cooling, and heating that is safe, resilient, local, and American. A public-private partnership that leverages public-sector investment with private-sector know-how can make geothermal technology a viable replacement for hydrocarbons and a powerful solution to reducing greenhouse gas emissions. We must empower and broaden the Enhanced Geothermal Earthshot through the programs and recommendations listed in this plan of action. In doing so, a reimagined and holistic Geothermal Earthshot can leverage the position and influence of the federal government through a whole-of-government approach, allowing the free market to seize on this momentum to scale and commercialize geothermal energy solutions. This will expand the rapidly emerging technologies that make widespread Earth-energy harnessing possible. As the need for firm, scalable, renewable, stable baseload energy only becomes more urgent, these geothermal innovations make the possibility of continuous, reliable, global clean energy a reality.
No. Unlike some other clean energy technologies that require vital minerals extracted or refined in authoritarian countries including Russia and China, Earth energy technologies and innovations reduce the clean energy economy’s reliance on these foreign-extracted minerals. Resilience from domestic geothermal energy secures our supply chains, conserves from destruction vital forests and habitats from Brazil to the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and generates high-paid and sought-after union jobs here in the United States.
The clean energy transformation brings with it a workforce transition. Geothermal technologies offer displaced fossil fuel workers employment opportunities that respect their professional experiences, maintain their community heritage, and preserve their place-based sense of self. Mechanical engineers, drill rig apprentices, drill supervisors, geophysicists, and project managers from the oil, gas, and coal industries all possess skills and training transferable to geothermal jobs—typically, six-figure salaried jobs.
Workers are tired of hearing “trust us” refrains from politicians, the private sector, and government agencies that claim a new job will be found for them. These jobs need to be ready before an individual’s job disappears and not rely on potential tourism or the prospect of relocation to another community.
Geothermal provides solutions to the oil and gas workforce as it transitions to a clean energy economy and protects the integrity and honor of rural American communities once prominent in the fossil fuel economy such as Eddington in Maine, Page in Arizona, Colstrip in Montana, River Rouge in Michigan, St. James in Louisiana, and Winfield in West Virginia. All of these communities have had environmental and public health issues due to hydrocarbons or are experiencing major loss of employment due to closing hydrocarbon-burning power plants.
Rural America is poised to win big in the ongoing clean energy transformation once policymakers harness the vast geothermal potential everywhere under our feet.
Recent heat waves around the world, with record temperatures that threaten food production and even human survival, highlight an important fact: with global warming comes an increasing need for sustainable cooling strategies.
Traditional air-conditioning removes dangerous heat from buildings and provides life-saving shelter and comfort. Unfortunately, air-conditioning systems worsen two other problems.
First, heat is not so much removed or eliminated as it is moved from one location to another. When a building interior is cooled, that thermal energy is transferred to the exterior surroundings. In dense urban areas, this effect increases local temperatures, exacerbating the heat wave in places that are already heat islands as a result of urbanization.
Second, air-conditioning requires significant electricity, placing additional stress on electric grids and generation systems that are already struggling to decrease fossil fuel dependence and cope with the electrification needed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
Thankfully, this increased demand can be partially offset by daytime solar generation. But nighttime cooling has become a necessity in many places. Geothermal technology has a major role to play here too. Geothermal (i.e., ground source) heat pumps are far more efficient than their air-source counterparts, especially at high and low temperatures.
A ground-source cooling system can reduce building interior temperatures without heating the surrounding air space. But the capital costs for these systems are high. Public-sector support is needed via tax credits and the Defense Production Act to incentivize adoption now plus simultaneous investments in technology to streamline implementation and decrease cost over time.
Intermittent energy technologies have proven they can scale and compete with fossil fuels. But wind and solar, along with battery storage, only get us part of the way through the clean energy transformation. These technologies have made enormous strides in cost-effectively replacing fossil fuels for power generation, but their intermittent nature means they cannot get us “the last mile” to total electrification. They also cannot provide scalable and distributed cooling/heating benefits to decarbonize the built environment or agriculture processes that produce harmful emissions by burning fossil fuels.
A report published by a consortium of scientists and led by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology estimate conventional geothermal could provide 100,000 megawatts of electricity in the United States––enough energy to power 16 million U.S. households––while the Department of Energy estimates geothermal heating and cooling could reach 28 million U.S. households through the use of geothermal heat pumps. These are conservative estimates using proven technologies. Innovative technologies will exponentially grow these estimates with the right and much needed policy support.
Because geothermal energy is a reliable, carbon-free, and renewable source of power, it has wide-ranging applications that meet America’s key agricultural, manufacturing, and commercial needs, including aquaculture farming; dairy production; processing pulp and paper; mineral recovery for use in battery, wind turbine, and solar panel manufacturing; vegetable processing and drying; and zero-carbon electricity generation, to name a few. Find out more uses of geothermal on page 22 in the DOE’s GeoVision report.
Renewable energy technologies, such as advanced biofuels for transportation, are key for U.S. efforts to mitigate climate change
Climate change is bringing about rising temperatures, which have significant negative impacts on humans and the environment, and transitioning to renewable energy sources, such as biofuels, can help meet this challenge. One consequence of higher global temperatures is the increasing frequency of extreme weather events that cause massive amounts of harm and damage. As depicted in Figure 1, six of the 10 costliest extreme weather events in the U.S. have occurred in the last 10 years, amounting to over $411 billion in damages (in 2020 dollars and adjusted for inflation). The other four occurred between 2004 and 2008, and the costs of future extreme weather events are expected to keep climbing.
Moreover, the World Health Organization estimates that, globally, climate change is responsible for over 150,000 deaths per year. This is because in addition to extreme weather events, climate change contributes to the spread of diseases, reduced food production, and many other problems.
Transitioning to renewable energy, and reducing reliance on fossil fuels, is one way to help slow down the effects of climate change. While renewables used to be a more expensive option, new clean energy technologies are lowering costs and helping to move economies away from fossil fuels. For example, solar panel prices decreased 75 to 80 percent between 2009 and 2015. Due to similar trends in other renewables like wind and hydropower, renewable energy generation technology accounts for over half of all new power generation capacity brought online worldwide every year since 2011.
More must be done to ensure that renewable energy technologies are key contributors to the mitigation of climate change. As of 2018, solar and wind accounted for less than 4% of all the energy used in the U.S. (Figure 2). The amount of energy generated by solar panels has increased almost 46-fold since 2008, but still only amounts to about 1% of the total energy generated in the country. Unfortunately, renewables currently provide only a small fraction of the total energy produced, and to counter climate change, this contribution must drastically increase.
Nonrenewable sources are still frequently used because they are very dense in energy. In the transportation sector, for example, gas or diesel fuels have about 40 times more energy, pound for pound, than the leading electric battery technologies. In order for an electric car to travel 360 miles, which is the average distance traveled on a full 12.4 gallon tank of gas, the car would need a battery weighing over 1,300 pounds.
To reduce reliance on petroleum-based fuels, particularly for heavy-duty vehicles and airplanes, one potential solution is biofuels. Biofuels are produced by breaking down plant material and converting it into usable fuels, such as ethanol or biodiesel. Corn ethanol is already added to gas to cut down on greenhouse gas emissions. However, creating ethanol is not a zero-carbon process, and supplementing with corn ethanol averages just under 40 percent lower carbon emissions than using only gasoline. Corn ethanol also relies on land which could be used for growing other food crops. Researchers are currently studying how to use invasive plants, as well as plants that require little water, fertilizer, or land to grow, to create the next generation of biofuels. Some promising plant feedstock options include hemp, switchgrass, carrizo cane, jatropha shrubs, and algae. New biotechnologies are also being studied to develop more efficient ways to break down biomass into sugars, which microbes then convert into biofuels. There is also ongoing research to create microbes that can directly convert plants to biofuels, and to enable microbes to produce long-chain, energy-dense hydrocarbons that could be used to fuel heavy-duty vehicles and airplanes.
The Information Technology and Innovation Foundation developed several recommendations which could bolster the implementation of biofuels. These recommendations include:
- Increasing investments in bioenergy and biomanufacturing research and development by 150 percent by the next five years;
- Engaging the Department of Energy and the Department of Agriculture to support the development of biofuels for aviation, shipping, and “other hard-to-electrify transportation sectors;” and
- Expanding research into gene-editing tools that can be used to improve biomass processing, increasing the diversity of plant feedstocks that could be leveraged for lower-cost biofuel production.
By improving the efficiency of renewable energy technologies like biofuels, wind, and solar, and further innovating in the renewables space, the U.S. science and technology community can help ensure that renewables are leveraged in the effort to counter the climate crisis.
This CSPI Science and Technology Policy Deep Dive expands upon a scientific exchange between Congressman Bill Foster (D, IL-11) and his new FAS-organized Science Council.
Climate solutions and nuclear energy
The full House Science, Space, and Technology Committee discussed climate hurdles and solutions in a January 15 hearing titled, “An update on the climate crisis: From science to solutions.” Interestingly, the main point of debate during this hearing was not whether climate change was occurring, but rather the economic impacts of climate change mitigation. As predicted, the debate was split down party lines.
While the Democrats emphasized the negative consequences of climate change and the need to act, several Republican members insisted that China and India rein in their greenhouse gas emissions first.
Congressman Mo Brooks (R, AL-05) asked the most heated series of questions during the hearing, related to India and China’s carbon emissions. He asked if there was a way to force both to reduce their emissions, which, according to a report by the European Union, have seen increases of 305% and 354%, respectively, between 1990 and 2017.
Democrats focused their questions to highlight the science behind climate change. Chairwoman Eddie Bernice Johnson (D, TX-30) asked each witness about the biggest hurdles in their fields. Richard Murray, Deputy Director and Vice President for Research at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, said that more investments in large-scale ocean observations and data are needed. Pamela McElwee, Associate Professor of Human Ecology at Rutgers, said that a lot of advances in land conservation can be made with existing technology, but that investments in genetic modification of crops to restore nutrients to the soil, for example, could be developed. Heidi Steltzer, Professor of Environment and Sustainability at Fort Lewis College, encouraged the inclusion of diverse perspectives in climate research to develop the most creative solutions. Congressman Paul Tonko (D, NY-20) summed up the Democrats’ views on climate change by stating that the climate science performed by researchers like the witnesses should inform federal action and that inaction on this issue is costly.
While committee Republicans expressed concerns over the impact of climate regulations on business, members of the committee did emphasize the importance of renewing U.S. leadership in nuclear power, pointing to competition from Russia and China. Nuclear power continues to be the largest source of carbon free electricity in the country.
One of the witnesses, Michael Shellenberger, Founder and President of Environmental Progress noted that the US’ ability to compete internationally in nuclear energy was declining as Russia and China rush to complete new power plants. Losing ground in this area, he added, negatively impacts the U.S.’ reputation as a developer of cutting edge energy technology and dissuades developing countries interested in building nuclear power plants from contracting with the U.S.
As the impacts of climate change take their toll in California, the Caribbean, Australia, and elsewhere, the U.S. Congress remains divided on how to address it.
We thank our community of experts for helping us create an informative resource and questions for the committee.
Supercomputing a high priority for DOE Office of Science
While last week’s House Science Subcommittee on Energy hearing about research supported by the Department of Energy (DOE) Office of Science touched on a range of issues, competition with China on high-performance computing took center stage.
The big milestone that world powers are competing to reach in the high-performance computing field is the development of the first-ever exascale computer. An exascale computer would greatly enhance research areas like materials development for next-generation batteries, seismic analysis, weather and climate modeling, and even clinical health studies like “identifying risk factors for suicide and best practices for intervention.” It would be about a million times faster than a consumer desktop computer, operating at a quintillion calculations per second. The U.S., China, Japan, and European Union are all working to complete the first exascale system.
In the competition to develop faster and faster supercomputers, China has made rapid progress. In 2001, none of the 500 fastest supercomputers were made in China. As of June 2019, 219 of the 500 fastest supercomputers had been developed by China, and the US had 116. Notably, when the computational power of all these systems is totaled up for each country, China controls 30 percent of the world’s high-performance computing resources, while the U.S. controls 38 percent. In the past, China had asserted that it would complete an exascale computing system this year; however, it is unclear if the country will meet its goal.
A U.S. exascale system due in 2021 – Aurora – is being built at Argonne National Lab in Illinois, and hopes are high that it will be the world’s first completed exascale computer. During the hearing, Representatives Dan Lipinski (D, IL-03) and Bill Foster (D, IL-11) both raised the issue of progress on the project. According to DOE Office of Science director Dr. Christopher Fall, the Aurora project is meeting its benchmarks, with headway being made not only on the hardware, but also on a “once-in-a-generation” reworking and modernization of the software stack that will run on the system, as well as developing high-speed internet for linking generated data with the computation of that data. DOE believes that the U.S. is in a strong position to complete the first-ever exascale computing system, and that our holistic approach to high-performance computing is something that is missing from competitors’ strategies, giving the U.S. even more of an edge.
In addition to the Aurora project, two more exascale computing projects are underway at U.S. National Labs. Frontier, at Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee, is also projected to deploy in 2021, while El Capitan, based at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California, should launch in 2022. El Capitan will only be used by individuals in the national security field.
In addition to research in high-performance computing, the diverse and impactful science supported by the DOE Office of Science is truly something to protect and promote. To review the full hearing, click here.
The JASON scientific advisory panel cautiously endorsed further research into what is known as Magneto-Inertial Fusion (MIF) as a step towards achieving fusion-generated electricity.
“Magneto-Inertial Fusion (MIF) is a physically plausible approach to studying controlled thermonuclear fusion in a region of parameter space that is less explored than Inertial Confinement Fusion (ICF) or Magnetic Confinement Fusion (MCF).”
“Despite having received ~1% the funding of MCF and ICF, MIF experiments have made rapid progress in recent years toward break-even conditions,” the JASONs said in a report to the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E) late last year.
Even so, “Given the immaturity of the technologies, the future ability of fusion-generated electricity to meet commercial constraints cannot be usefully assessed. Rapidly developing infrastructures for natural gas and renewable energy sources and storage will compete with any future commercial fusion efforts.”
See Prospects for Low Cost Fusion Development, JASON Report JSR-18-011, November 2018.
The fusion report is one of two unclassified reports prepared by the JASONs in 2018. (Release of the second is pending.) The other twelve reports from last year are classified.
The New York Times recently provided an overview of fusion research in Clean, Abundant Energy: Fusion Dreams Never End by C. Claiborne Ray, January 11, 2019.
Meanwhile, the Federation of American Scientists warned that the current shutdown of federal agencies threatens many aspects of U.S. science and technology.
“The partial government shutdown is compromising the very research that is important to the health and security of our nation. Important scientific breakthroughs could be compromised or lost with each and every day that the shutdown continues,” FAS said in a January 16 letter to the White House and Congress.
“We therefore urge you to open the federal government, send researchers back to work at their agencies, and allow science to flourish throughout the United States.”
The Trump Administration budget request for FY 2018 would “severely reduce” Energy Department funding for development of carbon capture and sequestration technologies intended to combat the climate change effects of burning fossil fuels.
The United States has “more than 250 years’ worth of clean, beautiful coal,” President Trump said last month, implying that remedial measures to diminish the environmental impact of coal power generation are unnecessary.
Research on the carbon capture technology that could make coal use cleaner by removing carbon dioxide from power plant exhaust would be cut by 73% if the Trump Administration has its way.
“The Trump Administration’s approach would be a reversal of Obama Administration and George W. Bush Administration DOE policies, which supported large carbon-capture demonstration projects and large injection and sequestration demonstration projects,” the Congressional Research Service said this week in a new report.
“We have finally ended the war on coal,” President Trump declared.
However, congressional approval of the Administration’s proposal to slash carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) development is not a foregone conclusion.
“The House Appropriations Committee’s FY2018 bill funding DOE disagrees with the Administration budget request and would fund CCS activities at roughly FY2017 levels,” the CRS report said.
“This report provides a summary and analysis of the current state of CCS in the United States.” It also includes a primer on how CCS could work, and a profile of previous funding in this area. See Carbon Capture and Sequestration (CCS) in the United States, July 24, 2017.
Other new and updated reports from the Congressional Research Service include the following.
Methane and Other Air Pollution Issues in Natural Gas Systems, updated July 27, 2017
The U.S. Export Control System and the Export Control Reform Initiative, updated July 24, 2017
Base Erosion and Profit Shifting (BEPS): OECD Tax Proposals, July 24, 2017
Oman: Reform, Security, and U.S. Policy, updated July 25, 2017
Lebanon, updated July 25, 2017
Aviation Bills Take Flight, but Legislative Path Remains Unclear, CRS Insight, July 25, 2017
Military Officers, CRS In Focus, July 3, 2017
Military Enlisted Personnel, CRS In Focus, July 3, 2017
Transgender Servicemembers: Policy Shifts and Considerations for Congress, CRS Insight, July 26, 2017
Systematic, authorized publication of CRS reports on a government website came a step closer to reality yesterday when the Senate Appropriations Committee voted to approve “a provision that will make non-confidential CRS reports available to the public via the Government Publishing Office’s website.”
This special report is a result of an FAS task force on French naval nuclear propulsion and explores France’s decision to switch from highly-enriched uranium (HEU) to low-enriched uranium (LEU). By detailing the French Navy’s choice to switch to LEU fuel, author Alain Tournyol du Clos — a lead architect of France’s nuclear propulsion program — explores whether France’s choice is fit for other nations.
As I write this president’s message, the U.S. election has just resulted in a resounding victory for the Republican Party, which will have control of both the Senate and House of Representatives when the new Congress convenes in January. While some may despair that these results portend an even more divided federal government with a Democratic president and a Republican Congress, I choose to view this event as an opportunity in disguise in regards to the important and urgent issue of U.S. energy policy.
President Barack Obama has staked a major part of his presidential legacy on combating climate change. He has felt stymied by the inability to convince Congress to pass comprehensive legislation to mandate substantial reductions in greenhouse gas emissions. Instead, his administration has leveraged the power of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to craft rules that will, in effect, force the closure of many of the biggest emitters: coal power plants. These new rules will likely face challenges in courts and Congress. To withstand the legal challenge, EPA lawyers are working overtime to make the rules as ironclad as possible.
The Republicans who oppose the EPA rules will have difficulty in overturning the rules with legislation because they do not have the veto-proof supermajority of two-thirds of Congress. Rather, the incoming Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell (R-Kentucky) said before the election that he would try to block appropriations that would be needed to implement the new rules. But this is a risky move because it could result in a budget battle with the White House. The United States cannot afford another grinding halt to the federal budget.
Several environmental organizations have charged many Republican politicians with being climate change deniers. Huge amounts of money were funneled to the political races on both sides of the climate change divide. On the skeptical side, political action groups affiliated with the billionaire brothers Charles and David Koch received tens of millions of dollars; they have cast doubt on the scientific studies of climate change. And on the side of wanting to combat climate change, about $100 million was committed by NextGen Climate, a political action group backed substantially by billionaire Tom Steyer. Could this money have been better spent on investments in shoring up the crumbling U.S. energy infrastructure? Instead of demonizing each side and just focusing on climate change, can the nation try a different approach that can win support from a core group of Democrats and Republicans?
Both Democratic and Republican leaders believe that the United States must have strong national security. Could this form the basis of a bipartisan plan for better energy policy? But this begs another question that would have to be addressed first: What energy policy would strengthen national security? Some politicians, including several former presidents, have called for the United States to be energy independent. Due to the recent energy revolution in technologies to extract so-called unconventional oil and gas from shale and sand geological deposits, the United States is on the verge of becoming a major exporter of natural gas and has dramatically reduced its dependence on outside oil imports (except from the friendly Canadians who are experiencing a bonanza in oil extracted from tar sands). However, these windfall developments do not mean that the United States is energy independent, even including the natural resources in all of North America.
Oil is a globally traded commodity and natural gas (especially in the form of liquefied natural gas) is tending to become this type of commodity. This implies that the United States cannot decouple its oil and gas production and consumption from other countries. For example, a disruption in the Strait of Hormuz leading to the Persian Gulf will affect about 40 percent of the globe’s oil deliveries because of shipments from Iran, Iraq, Kuwait, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirate. Such a disruption might occur in an armed conflict with Iran, which has been at loggerheads with the United States over its nuclear program. Moreover, while the United States has not been importing significant amounts of oil from the Middle East recently, U.S. allies Japan and South Korea rely heavily on oil from that region. Thus, a major principle for U.S. national security is to work cooperatively with these allies to develop a plan to move away from overreliance on oil and gas from this region and an even longer term plan to transition away from fossil fuels.
Actually, this long term plan is not really that far into the future. According to optimistic estimates (for example, from Cambridge Energy Research Associates) for when global oil production will reach its peak, the world only has until at least 2030 before the peak is reached, and then there will be a gradual decline in production over the next few decades after the peak.1 (Pessimistic views such as from oil expert Colin Campbell predict the peak occurring around 2012 to 2015.2 We thus may already be at the peak.) Once the global decline starts to take effect, price shocks could devastate the world’s economy. Moreover, as the world’s population is projected to increase from seven billion people today to about nine billion by mid-century, the demand for oil will also significantly increase given business as usual practices.
For the broader scope national security reason of having a stable economy, it is imperative to develop a nonpartisan plan for transitioning from the “addiction” to oil that President George W. Bush called attention to in his State of the Union Address in January 2006. While skepticism about the science of climate change will prevail, this should not hold back the United States working together with other nations to craft a comprehensive energy plan that saves money, creates more jobs, and overall strengthens international security.
FAS is developing a new project titled Sustainable Energy and International Security. FAS staff will be contacting experts in our network to form a diverse group with expertise in energy technologies, the social factors that affect energy use, military perspectives, economic assessments, and security alliances. I welcome readers’ advice and donations to start this project; please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org. FAS relies on donors like you to help support our projects; I urge you to consider supporting this and other FAS projects.
A stable and thriving Pakistan is the key to preserving harmony and facilitating progress in the broader South Asia region. Afghanistan, which is to the west of Pakistan, has a long border that divides the Pakhtun people between the countries. As a result of this border, Pakistan not only has a significant role in the Afghan economy, but instability in the loosely governed Pakistani frontier region spills across the border into Afghanistan. Because of this relationship, Pakistan has a direct impact on the outcome on the 13 year U.S. led war in Afghanistan. On the other hand, an unstable Pakistan would not only shatter budding trade relations with India, but could also spark conflict between the two nuclear armed rivals.
From frequent attacks by Islamic militants across the country to a slowing economy, it is clear that there are many issues that threaten Pakistan’s stability. However, the most pressing issue that Pakistan faces today is its deteriorating economy. In particular, a crushing energy shortage across the country significantly constrains economic growth. This fiscal year, Pakistan’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP) is forecasted to grow by measly 3.4 percent. At the same time, the country’s population is expected to grow by 1.8 percent adding to the 189 million people living there today. If there aren’t jobs available for the millions of young Pakistanis entering the work force, not only will poverty increase, but there is a strong possibly that some of these youth could vent their frustrations by joining the countless Islamic militant groups active in the country.
To build a more prosperous economy, Pakistan needs to address its energy problems. Without a reliable source of electricity or natural gas, how can Pakistani businesses compete on the global market? Large parts of the country today face blackouts lasting an average of 10 hours each day because of the electricity shortage. The current gap between electricity generation and demand is roughly 2500 MW, a shortage large enough to keep a population of 20 million or the city of Karachi in the dark.
These power shortages are only expected to become worse in the coming summer months. This is because demand for electricity peaks in the sizzling heat, while hydroelectric generation decreases as the water flow in the rivers drops due to seasonal fluctuation. This article will focus on the causes of the country’s energy problems involving the electricity sector and explore possible directions Pakistan can take to improve its energy situation, building its economy in the process.
How Does Pakistan Generate its Electricity?
Figure 1 breaks down Pakistan’s electricity generation by source. Thermal power, which includes natural gas, oil, and coal generated electricity, accounts for 70 percent of Pakistan’s total electricity generation, while hydroelectric generation is roughly responsible for the remaining 30 percent.
Electricity generated from furnace oil accounts for slightly over a third of Pakistan electricity. In the early 1990s, the country faced a power shortage of about 2000 MW when there was a peak load on the electricity grid. To resolve the growing crisis, the Pakistani government implemented a new policy in 1994, which was designed to attract foreign investment in the power sector and as a result there was construction of oil based power plants. These power plants were cheaper and faster to construct compared to other electricity generation plants such as hydroelectric dams. At the same time, the relatively low prices (below $17 a barrel) of crude oil meant that these plants generated electricity fairly cheaply. Fast forward to present times, the price of crude oil has risen to hover roughly around $100 a barrel. Unlike nearby Saudi Arabia, Pakistan is naturally not well endowed in crude oil reserves. This means that Pakistan must ship increasing amount of valuable currency abroad to secure the oil it needs to keeps these power plants running.
Along with furnace oil power plants, natural gas is used to generate about another third of electricity; it is provided by domestic reserves, thereby helping Pakistan’s economy and energy security. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, Pakistan has proven natural gas reserves of 24 trillion cubic feet (Tcf) in 2012. These reserves will last Pakistan an estimated 17 years based on the country’s annual consumption rate of 1.382 Tcf in 2012. At the same time, consumption rates are estimated to increase four fold to nearly 8 Tcf per year by the year 2020, further reducing the size of the domestic reserves.
The Pakistani government in 2005 under President Pervez Musharraf promoted the conversion of cars to run on compressed natural gas (CNG) instead of gasoline. The rationale was that this conversion would reduce the amount of money spent on purchasing and importing oil abroad. At the same time, CNG is cleaner for the environment than burning gasoline. As a result of this policy, more than 80 percent of Pakistan’s cars today run on CNG.But because of this surging demand for its limited natural gas, there is a critical shortage of it which has adversely impacted the country’s ability to use this fuel source to generate electricity. Essentially Pakistanis are forced to decide whether to use natural gas to fuel their cars, cook their food, or generate electricity.
Power Theft and the Circular Debt Issue
The reliance on oil and natural gas to generate electricity is incredibly inefficient, but these inefficiencies alone are not responsible for the crippling power shortages. The other source of tension involves the accumulation of circular debt in the electricity sector over the past few years. Circular debt is a situation where consumers, electricity producers and the government all owe each other money and are unable to pay. By June 2013 when the new government led by Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif took control, this circular debt had ballooned to $5 billion.
There are several reasons for the accumulation of this debt; the largest problem stems from power theft. Many Pakistani elites and even parts of the government do not pay their electricity bills. The law and order situation also prevent power companies from collecting bills in certain parts of the country. As a result, Pakistani electricity companies currently recover only 76 percent of the money that electricity consumers owe them. In fact, the Pakistani Minister for Water and Power, Mr. Khwaja Muhammad Asif, has acknowledged that the Pakistani government is one of the country’s largest defaulters of electricity bills. As part of recent crackdown, the power ministry cut supplies to the Prime Minister’s home and the Parliament House (among many government offices) because they were delinquent on their electricity bills. While many Pakistanis don’t pay their electricity bills, others steal power by illegally hooking into the power grid. This theft coupled with an inefficient electricity grid and the associated transmission loss means that Pakistan’s electricity generators are left with huge financial losses.
All these losses accumulate to form the circular debt and it places power producers in a position where they are unable to purchase enough fuel from abroad to operate power plants at full capacity. With an installed generation capacity of 22500 MW, Pakistan currently has more than enough installed capacity to meet peak demand levels today. The power producers are in reality only able to generate between 12000MW and 15000MW because of both inefficient energy infrastructure and circular debt. This actual amount of electricity generated is far less than the 17000 MW of demand nationwide during peak hours of electricity usage.
The circular debt also makes it more difficult for power producers to invest in upgrading existing electricity infrastructure. If power producers don’t have the money to operate oil based power plants at full capacity, they certainly do not have enough capital to build newer, more efficient power plants. Even when the lights are on, the inefficient electricity system takes an additional toll on the country’s economy. Pakistanis today pay more than double their Indian neighbors for electricity (16.95 Pakistani Rupees vs. 7.36 Pakistani Rupees per KWh respectively), putting Pakistani firms at a further disadvantage compared to regional competitors.
Fixing Pakistan’s Electricity Problems
One of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s first actions after taking office was to pay off the $5 billion in circular debt that had accumulated by July 2013. Unfortunately, this step alone will not solve the power woes as it does not fix the underlying causes of the country’s power crisis. In fact, the circular debt has accumulate again, and stood at $1.8 billion by January 2014. To sustainably address the power crisis, Pakistanis need to change their attitude towards power theft by forcing the government and those delinquent to clear outstanding bills. At the same time, Pakistan must improve the efficiency of its electricity sector as well as expand and diversify its electricity generating capacity in order to ensure that the country can handle the expected growth in demand over the coming years.
Pakistan has tremendous potential to expand its electricity generating capacity by developing its renewable energy resources. At nearly 30 percent, hydroelectricity is already a major source of electricity generation, but according to the Pakistani government, this reflects only 13 percent of the total hydroelectric potential of the country. There are several drawbacks of major hydroelectric projects including that they are capital intensive and require extensive time to build. Furthermore, hydroelectric dams are harmful to the local ecosystem and can displace large populations. The U.S. government is actively investing in helping Pakistan develop its hydroelectric resources; in 2011, USAID funded the renovation of the Tarbela Dam. In the process, this added generation capacity of 128 MW, which is enough electricity for 2 million Pakistanis.
According to the USAID map of solar potential in Pakistan, the country has tremendous potential in harnessing the sun to generate electricity. Pakistan has an average daily insolation rate of 5.3 kWH/m2, which is similar to the average daily insolation rate in Phoenix (5.38 kWH/m2) or Las Vegas (5.3 kWH/m2), which are some of the best locations in the United States for solar generated electricity. So far, Pakistan has begun construction on a photovoltaic power plant in Punjab that will begin to produce 100 MW by the end of 2014.According to the World Bank some 40,000 villages in Pakistan are not electrified. Tapping into these solar resources could easily electrify many of these off the grid villages, while avoiding an increase in demand on the national electricity grid.
Pakistan has three currently active nuclear power plants: two located in Punjab and one in the southern port city of Karachi. The two Chinese built nuclear power plants in Punjab each have a net generation capacity of 300 MW. The Karachi power plant, which was built with a reactor supplied by Canada in 1972, has a net generation capacity of 125 MW, enough to provide power to 2 million Pakistanis. China has been a key supplier and investor in Pakistani nuclear energy, but there are some concerns regarding the transfer of nuclear technology to Pakistan, where A.Q. Khan’s nuclear network was headquartered. Specifically, China argues that its alliance with Pakistan predates its joining of the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG), which has restricted nuclear sales to Pakistan, so this justifies its desire to supply Pakistan with the technology. The Chinese are helping construct four more nuclear power plants, the first of which is expected to be online starting in 2019. While these plants will add 2,200 MW of generation capacity, these nuclear power projects are expensive; the current nuclear power plants under construction are said to cost about $5 billion per plant, an investment that China is helping finance.
There is a large amount of coal located in the Thar Desert in the southeastern part of the country. While the quality of the coal isn’t the best, Pakistan has a lot of it, nearly 175 billion tons, which is enough to meet current electricity demands for more than 300 years. However, Pakistan currently only has one operational coal power plant.
Pakistan is taking steps to develop this resource. In January 2014, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and former President Zardari broke ground on a $1.6 billion coal power project in the Thar Desert. This particular project is expected to be operational by 2017.
Pakistan has taken some clear steps such as developing its renewable resources and tapping its coal reserves, which can help expand and diversify where and how it generates its electricity. Further harnessing these resources will help alleviate the electricity shortfall. However, these steps alone will not solve the energy crisis. The more difficult solution involves changing the country’s attitude toward power theft, both by private citizens and the government. Convincing people to pay their electricity bills is difficult when even the government itself doesn’t pay its fair share. At the same time, there is less incentive to pay when citizens don’t even have access to a dependable source of electricity when they need it. As long as this attitude is prevalent among Pakistanis from all walks of life as well as the government, the country cannot sustainably solve its energy woes. Circular debt will continue to accumulate and large sections of the country will face hours of darkness each day.
Tackling the energy problem is the first step to strengthening the economy; over time, a growing economy will attract greater investment in the energy sector. Pakistan’s sensitive geographic location could become a strategic asset as it would serve as a bridge linking the economies of Afghanistan and Central Asia with the broader Indian subcontinent. Not only does the population provide Pakistan with a large domestic market, but it also empowers the country with a young, entrepreneurial workforce. This gives Pakistan tremendous potential, but can only be unleashed if the country figures out a way to keep the lights on and the factories humming.
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Ravi Patel is a student at Stanford University where he recently completed a B.S. in Biology and is currently pursuing an M.S. in Biology. He completed an honors thesis on developing greater Indo-Pakistan trade under Sec. William Perry at the Center for International Security and Cooperation (CISAC). Patel is the president of the Stanford U.S.-Russia Forum. He also founded the U.S.-Pakistan Partnership, a collaborative research program linking American and Pakistani university students. In the summer of 2012, Patel was a security scholar at the Federation of American Scientists. He also has extensive biomedical research experience focused on growing bone using mesenchymal stem cells through previous work at UCSF’s surgical research laboratory and Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.
Nelson Zhao is a fourth year undergraduate at University of California, Davis pursuing degrees in economics and psychology. Nelson is the Vice-President at the Stanford U.S.-Russia Forum and the Program Director at the U.S.-Pakistan Partnership. At the U.S.-Pakistan Partnership, he aims to develop a platform to convene the brightest students in order to cultivate U.S.-Pakistan’s bilateral relations.
In the wake of the devastating meltdown at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant in Japan, many Americans are now reevaluating the costs and benefits of nuclear energy. If anything, the accident underscores that constant vigilance is needed to ensure nuclear safety.
Policymakers and the public need more guidance about where nuclear power in the United States appears to be headed in light of the economic hurdles confronting construction of nuclear power plants, aging reactors, and a graying workforce, according to a report (PDF) by the Federation of American Scientists (FAS) and Washington and Lee University.