On July 8, the Department of Energy (DOE) hosted the second in its series of five National Lab Days on Capitol Hill. The National Lab Days are a relatively new education and outreach effort organized by the DOE Office of Congressional and Intergovernmental Affairs on a semi-annual basis to highlight the national laboratory system as a cornerstone of the U.S. innovation ecosystem.
The well-attended July 8 event highlighted the national labs’ contributions toward the development of a new, modernized energy infrastructure for the nation. It featured remarks from high-level DOE officials, Members of Congress, and national lab directors, and exhibits in four DOE systems areas related to energy infrastructure: electric grid modernization; subsurface science; sustainable transportation; and integrated energy systems. The description Elizabeth Sherwood-Randall, Deputy Secretary at DOE, who moderated the event, gave of the exhibits was “basically a science fair for grown-ups, but these exhibits are way beyond a model volcano.”
Sherwood-Randall opened by recognizing the high profile visitors in the audience, including Senator Chris Coons (D-DE), Senator Jim Risch (R-ID), Representative Randy Hultgren (R-IL), Representative Mike Doyle (D-PA) and Representative Chaka Fattah (D-PA), as well as the directors of the seventeen DOE national labs. In her opening remarks, she drew attention to how the DOE labs can be the “most important opportunities” our nation has for breakthroughs in the commercialization of technology and products coming from research. In giving several examples, Sherwood-Randall explained how Argonne National Laboratory conducted the basic research that led to next-generation lithium ion batteries that will replace cathode batteries in cars such as the Chevy Volt. And at Idaho National Laboratory, longtime research into small modular nuclear reactors has led to the likely deployment of the first nuclear power plant using this technology by 2023, pending approval from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.
At the event, Hultgren and Coons, who hail from different chambers of Congress and different political parties, each were given an opportunity to say some words to the audience, and both heaped praise on the DOE national lab system. Said Hultgren, who is co-chairman of the National Labs Caucus and represents Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory in Batavia, Ill., of the national labs: “It’s unlike anything else in the world. It sets us apart. It’s a key part of the ecosystem of innovation, discovery, and science.”
Earlier, Coons said, “Every lab I’ve been able to go to so far has inspired me and reminded me what a unique and powerful assets the national labs are.” Coons continued, urging Congress and the DOE to renew focus on the potential of technology transfer and on the job creation and innovation capacities of the national labs. Coons also discussed a few key pieces of energy sciences legislation that the Senate is currently considering: S. 1398, the Energy Title of the “America COMPETES Reauthorization Act,” and S. 747 the “American Innovation Act,” which would authorize funding for basic scientific research at the National Science Foundation, DOE Office of Science, and Department of Defense at 5 percent increases per year over the next 10 years.
A panel of national experts, including a DOE official and a number of DOE lab directors, spoke to the value of the DOE national laboratories, the research ongoing at the labs, and successes the labs have had in transferring research into technologies and other applications. Panelists included: Melanie Kenderdine, Director of the DOE Office of Energy Policy and Systems Analysis; Grace Bochenek, Director of the National Energy Technology Laboratory; Paul Hommert, Director of Sandia National Laboratory; David Terry, Executive Director of the National Association of State Energy Officials; Dan Arvizu, Director of the National Renewable Energy Laboratory and current Chairman of the National Science Board; and Thomas Kuhn, President of the Edison Electric Institute.
For the next three National Lab Days on Capitol Hill, which will be held at six-month intervals, the DOE will highlight other areas of its mission: national security, basic science research, and then environmental management.