Although last month’s hearing of the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology’s Subcommittee on Energy was low-key in nature and less than ninety minutes long, it demonstrated considerable support for the Department of Energy’s Energy Innovation Hubs.
“With appropriate goals, benchmarks, and oversight, this kind of collaborative research and development is just common sense” Subcommittee Chairman Randy Weber (R-TX) said as he opened the hearing. Equally supportive was Subcommittee Ranking Member Alan Grayson (D-FL) who told the four directors appearing at this hearing “Each of you is involved in exciting and innovative work. . . . It is my hope that this Congress can provide the resources you need to accomplish your goals . . . .” Full Committee Chairman Lamar Smith (R-TX) provided a statement for the record that concluded “The Department of Energy should prioritize the ongoing cooperation between the national labs and academia in order to solve basic scientific challenges. It should also partner with American entrepreneurs to solve energy challenges through new technologies. Leveraging limited resources through partnerships will keep America at the forefront of cutting-edge science.” Full Committee Ranking Member Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX) also expressed her support in a statement for the record, explaining “these centers of excellence are tackling a variety of areas that may well be vital to our clean energy future.”
The Hubs program was established in 2010. DOE explains “Energy Innovation Hubs are integrated research centers that combine basic and applied research with engineering to accelerate scientific discovery in critical energy issue areas.” There are now four Hubs: the Joint Center for Artificial Photosynthesis (JCAP), Consortium for Advanced Simulation of Light Water Reactors (CASL), Joint Center for Energy Storage Research (JCESR) and the Critical Materials Institute (CMI). A Hub devoted to building efficiency was dissolved because of concerns about goals, cost, and performance. The Hubs are hosted by national laboratories or universities; more information on the program is available here.
Testifying before the subcommittee were the directors of the four Hubs who discussed cutting-edge multidisciplinary research in their opening statements. Following the presentations subcommittee members asked questions indicating general support of the program. Chairman Weber’s questions focused on CASL and its development of a Virtual Environment for Reactor Applications (VERA) modeling nuclear reactors to more accurately estimate the impacts of aging on the integrity of their components, and other reactor operations. Weber feels this work will play an important role in the relicensing of the nation’s fleet of 99 nuclear plants. Representative Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA) was less convinced, criticizing CASL’s focus on what he said was an old technology.
Other questions were asked about the next generation of battery technologies in a clean energy future, the production of new transportation fuels, new nuclear reactor designs, and cooperative work with industry and universities. Work conducted in the Hubs can accomplish in two years what would ordinarily take twenty years one of the witnesses testified. Future management of the program was also discussed. Under current procedure, work at a Hub is to be concluded after a second five-year contract. Intended to spur rapid innovation, Ranking Member Grayson asked if a merit-based review system should be considered to allow a Hub “pursuing promising research” to continue in operation.