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Re-shaping the Department of Energy in Obama’s Second Term: Picking a New Energy Secretary

Originally posted at Forbes.

Department of Energy (DOE) Secretary Steven Chu is widely expected to leave the administration and there has already been widespread speculation about his possible replacement. The Washington PostNational JournalPoliticoGreentech Media, and E&E have all compiled lists of possible contenders. Nevertheless, while the focus has been on candidates with political stature who are generally supportive of clean energy, as I wrote earlier this week a clear understanding of the innovation process and an eye towards continuing reforming the DOE should be the primary prerequisites. Aggressively building off of the reforms made early in the President’s first term – ARPA-E, the Innovation Hubs, and Energy Frontier Research Centers to name a few – are desperately needed to make the DOE a “well-oiled engine for clean energy innovation.” With that in mind and assuming Secretary Chu doesn’t stay on for a second term, here are ITIF’s recommendations for the top job at the Department of Energy:

Arun Majumdar, who served as the founding director of the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E) and Acting Undersecretary of Energy, would be far and away the best choice. He also worked under Stephen Chu as Associate Laboratory Director for Energy and Environment at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, making Majumdar a natural transition from Secretary Chu’s leadership. As head of ARPA-E, Majumdar was an extremely effective advocate for clean energy innovation and in fact as ITIF has pointed out before, “helped make [the agency] a leading force for energy innovation in the country, if not the leading force.” Majumdar’s experience spinning up ARPA-E and his all-star ability to advocate for clean energy innovation would be invaluable to moving DOE forward.

Susan Hockfield, former President of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). Hockfield turned MIT into a hub for energy innovation, launching the $359 million MIT Energy Initiative in 2006 to accelerate transformational energy technology research and development. Like Majumdar and Secretary Chu, Hockfield is a scientist-by-training and has a deep appreciation for the positive role government can play in fostering innovation. In fact, she was a keynote speaker at the 2012 ARPA-E Energy Innovation Summit, where she laid out a compelling clean energy innovation agenda for the nation:

First, universities and government should shake off their trepidations about working with both the incumbent and emerging energy industry. Second, the rest of DOE, and frankly the rest of government, should follow ARPA-E’s lead in defining competitive cost as central to the clean-tech innovation equation. Third, we should figure out how to use the scale of government energy consumption, especially through DOD, to provide test beds for important new technologies. Fourth, we should seize the opportunities of advanced manufacturing to help change the cost equation for new energy technologies. And fifth, we need to develop a range of financing models that will allow energy technologies to develop and thrive in the market.

Norman Augustine, former Chairman of Lockheed Martin and former Undersecretary of the Army. Like Hockfield, Augustine recognizes that innovation must be a priority for the DOE; in testimony before Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources earlier this year, he noted “the nation will need to depend more heavily on innovation; that is, utilize high quality research to create new knowledge, world-class engineering to convert that knowledge into new energy sources and delivery means, and enlightened entrepreneurship to translate those sources and delivery means into the marketplace.” He also has extensive experience in managing large organizations – in addition to his work at Lockheed Martin and the Department of Defense, he was also a CEO of the Martin Marietta Corporation, Chairman of the American Red Cross, and Chairman of the Defense Science Board. He is currently a member of the American Energy Innovation Council, of which any of its business leaders – particularly Augustine – would be well suited for position of Energy Secretary.

In 2008, the President brought in a new group of thought leaders into the Department of Energy, including Secretary Steven Chu, Arun Majumdar, and current Assistant Secretary for EERE David Danielson, that breathed fresh air into an often criticized DOE that is nonetheless central to spurring and facilitating the nations energy innovation ecosystem. In the four years since, the ecosystem is running better than before and beginning to seed new clean energy technologies, ideas and services in the market place. But more work needs to be done.  America needs a better innovation ecosystem to develop and commercialize the cheap, high-performance low-carbon energy technologies necessary to addressing climate change and energy security issues. In other words, 2008’s talent infusion cannot be a one-off experience and choosing the right person at the top is a key first step.

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