Calls for Congress to boost federal funding for clean energy research are getting louder and Jim Trainham, executive director of the newly formed Research Triangle Solar Fuels Institute, is jockeying for a position in the chorus.
The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Duke University, N.C. State University and RTI International formed the solar fuels institute this summer to give the Research Triangle Park area its due as an energy research hub.
“There’s a lot of expertise here,” Trainham said Tuesday during a presentation at the Triangle Area Research Directors Council.
From its four parents, the solar fuels institute got experts in chemistry, electrical engineering, material sciences and nanotechnology and a lofty goal: Tapping the sun to make liquid fuel. (Watch a Q&A with Trainham here.)
The technology to meet the goal could be developed in less than a decade, Trainham suggested at TARDC. The big question is how to pay for the research and development.
In the past 30 years, federal funding for energy research has dropped about 80 percent to $5 billion annually. That’s a fraction of the about $30 billion available for health research and the about $80 billion available for defense research per year.
With much of the $35 billion in stimulus research money distributed and a deficit looming, Trainham isn’t the only one worried Congress will revert to neglecting federal funding for energy research.
In June, the American Energy Innovation Council, a group of top business executives that includes Bill Gates, chairman of Microsoft, released a proposal to develop new, inexpensive clean-energy sources that would increase federal funding for energy research to $16 billion per year. In October, scholars from three think tanks, the American Enterprise Institute, the Brookings Institution and the Breakthrough Institute, released a white paper that proposes to innovate clean-energy technology with the help of $25 billion in annual federal funding.
The solar fuels center has run commercials in the Washington, D.C., area to reinforce the message of the two proposals and give members of Congress an idea where some of the additional funding might go.
Trainham has also tried to get energy companies interested in partnering and investing in North Carolina’s Research Triangle. In September, he attended the World Energy Congress in Montreal, Canada, and was one of five speakers on a panel that discussed energy for transport issues.
The solar fuels institute has yet to secure industry commitments, but it has attracted interest among foreign governments. This week, a group of diplomats from 15 countries, including Bahrain, Australia and India, is visiting North Carolina to better understand the state’s green energy innovations and smart-grid technologies.
The U.S. government is paying less attention, Trainham told TARDC members. “Capitol Hill ignores the hidden costs of oil and gasoline.”
The $2.76 that a gallon of gasoline costs on average at the pump is misleading, Trainham said. The true cost for a gallon of gas is about $10.
How does he figure that? He includes taxpayers’ costs to secure the 53 percent of its refined oil that the U.S. has to import, including protecting the Persian Gulf – origin of much of the imported oil – and the loss of U.S. jobs and federal and state revenues due to the imports.
Considering oil’s hidden costs, paying to replace oil is a good deal, according to Trainham. “The greenness comes for fun.”