On October 13, 2013, as part of the 2013 Induction weekend, Ken Burns, President of Florentine Films, and Ernest J. Moniz, U.S. Secretary of Energy, spoke about the challenges and opportunities for the arts and the sciences.
Ken Burns is a documentary filmmaker and President of Florentine Films. He was elected a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 2011.
Editor’s note: Ken Burns’s presentation included a preview of his forthcoming film The Roosevelts: An Intimate History. The remarks that appear here are from the Question & Answer session that followed the preview.
There is so much material. How do you pick it, and how do you figure out the story?
Well, this is our job. There is in filmmaking a proverbial cutting-room floor, which one assumes is filled with the detritus. It is not; it is filled with extraordinarily good scenes that just don’t fit in. And most of what we struggled with over those seven years is trying to refine a narrative that a priori cannot be encyclopedic but has to in some ways represent a diversity of things.
The first thing we do is work with dozens of scholars. In fact, of the people who appear on camera and the people who advised us, we had 1,400 years of postgraduate experience in the Roosevelts or adjacent presidential administrations.
We worked with them for many years and then with our own materials, and then we started to shape it all. Inevitably the film will not be everything or capture every nuance, but I think you will be surprised at how deeply it goes. It is a very complex narrative, perhaps the most complex we have yet had to wrestle with. The title is slightly deceptive; it isn’t just an intimate history. It is about politics and what was going on.
For us, with the Roosevelts, it was important to have an inner perspective without descending into psychobabble and also represent the larger political-social-military narrative as accurately as we could.
Why did you choose to focus on the people and less on the political decisions they faced?
That is the bias of the selection you saw. I assure you the politics is there in spades. Everywhere, in every episode. From the Depressions that took place, and the class warfare that took place in the 1870s and 1880s that influenced the developing career of Theodore Roosevelt through to the very last episode with Eleanor fighting for the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in San Francisco at the beginnings of the United Nations. You will not be disappointed.
We felt it was important that these not appear – as they too often do in our studies – to be abbreviated to just a political track. They had to have multiple modes of inquiry. My old alma mater, Hampshire College, likes to say that we can get two things by the triangulation that can take place from multiple perspectives.
I read that when Franklin first got sick, Eleanor was going through his pockets and found a love letter. She knew he had betrayed her.
That is not quite right; that discovery happened three years before. He was stricken in the summer of 1921. In 1918, coming home from an inspection tour as Assistant Secretary of the Navy, he developed double pneumonia. When he arrived after the ship had brought him to New York, Eleanor was helping to unpack and discovered he had been having an affair with her social secretary, Lucy Mercer.
Eleanor had suspected something was going on and had already gotten rid of her. Yet Lucy had somehow joined the Navy and been assigned to Franklin’s office. Then the Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels said, “wait a second,” and he got rid of her. Nonetheless, apparently, the infatuation, the affair – the only affair – went on.
But she had discovered it three years before, and it was for the rest of her life, as someone says in the film, “the badge of honor of your intimacy with Eleanor Roosevelt.” She extended that badge to many people in her life, rehashing this most horrible of betrayals, which had taken place several years before the polio incident.
I would love to hear you speculate about the current political situation based on Roosevelt’s optimism. I believe Roosevelt said something like, “There are those who welcome me and I welcome their hate,” talking about the economic royalists. Some say that the current president ought to take that kind of attitude and show that kind of strength. I am wondering what the lessons of history are: Can you be Roosevelt again, or was it a moment in time that is not repeatable with that kind of presidential leadership?
This is the ultimate question. And this is merely one man’s opinion: you cannot be Franklin Roosevelt, because there can be only one Franklin Roosevelt.
Too often we apply the template of other periods and temperaments to a contemporary situation and find people lacking or wanting in some huge respect, as many people did back then of Roosevelt, including members of his own party.
Roosevelt did enjoy the luxury of owning both the House and the Senate. Not the Supreme Court, although he would see what he could do about that. But even then there were strange coalitions, and Social Security passes with a great deal of progressivism – a progressivism born in the Republican Party.
So there are some very interesting parallels to today. It is stunning the kind of gridlock that Barack Obama faces with regard to even the simplest of things – say, the original stimulus package, which is a fraction of what Franklin Roosevelt was able to do back then in real dollars. One thinks about the kind of speed with which an economic recovery would have been over had the government primed the pump.
Now, many people disagree with me politically and economically about that, and what we try to do in our film is not impose our own sense of perspective on it, but allow different voices to coexist. But I think Barack Obama is very much like FDR. He is a community organizer, and a lot of that is about how you get people to appeal to their better angels, as John Meacham and Abraham Lincoln would say.
These are really complex things. But having the kind of Republican Party that thinks that funding research and development in essential science is frivolous provides impediments.
And let us also not dodge a central issue of my entire body of work: the president is a black man. A good deal of the opposition, a good deal of the code words, the birther movement – all of the obstacles that have been put in the way of his efforts – are based entirely on the color of his skin and not the content of his character or the quality of his ideas.
Seeing this was a very moving experience for me, and some of those images that you had of Franklin Roosevelt brought me to tears. I was a small child during the Second World War, during which time my father was absent. Your film brought back that experience of looking up to Franklin Roosevelt as a surrogate for my absent father.
You hearten me, because I am not interested in excavating the dry dates and facts and events of the past. I am interested in an emotional archaeology.
That does not mean I am interested in sentimentality or nostalgia. But our founders understood correctly that there are higher emotions, and too often in our correct retreat from sentimentality and nostalgia we go merely to the rational world where one plus one always equals two. We do so at our peril, because we miss the power not only of the humanities but also of the sciences, where one and one quite often makes three.
This is what compels our personal lives and our love, our sex, our relationships, our family, our art, our work: all of this stuff has to do with that improbable calculus. John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and others of our founders spoke about the pursuit of Happiness, with a capital H – not the pursuit of things but some other larger lifelong learning that would in turn synthesize and provide the spark – believing that if human beings were free enough to govern themselves and choose their own faith and pursuits that a new kind of human evolution would take place, one of the mind and of the spirit. That is the pursuit of happiness.
I am a Lincoln man and have been all of my professional life, but I have always seen George Washington as number one. In baseball, it’s Babe Ruth; in pop music, it’s the Beatles. But then you are always really arguing about who’s in the number two position. Lincoln has always held that position for me, but after working on this film, I have to say that Franklin Roosevelt joins him in that second position.
After that you might have to pick up the list at number ten and leave all the rest blank, because the difference between those three extraordinary human beings, those extraordinarily effective politicians, and all the rest is so great. A lot of this has to do, I think, with these higher emotional connections that become the glue that might hold the shards of that dry pottery excavated from some distant and useless past.
I am curious how you bring the contributions from historians and other academic figures together. Do you have them involved in an iterative way over the entire project?
They are involved from the beginning. They may look at initial proposals, advise as to how the structuring might be – not in a filmic sense, but from a kind of thematic sense – and then they are involved in looking at two or three iterations of the script before we even begin to start editing.
Remember, we are out collecting stuff. We shoot first and ask questions later. I don’t want to go to David McCullough or Doris Kearns Goodwin or George Will and say, “Look, can you get me from paragraph two to paragraph three on page seven of episode six?” – which is something too many of my colleagues do. They don’t start shooting until after the script is set in stone, and then it is set in stone and there is no corrigibility involved. But we are corrigible to the end.
In fact, at the last screening – what we call a fine cut – we were moving to what we call “lock the picture, stop editing.” We were adding things that came out of conversations we were having with ourselves and with our scholars, just about fine-tuning things. About antitrust back in episode two with Theodore Roosevelt and finding more places where the ghost of Theodore can appear. He dies at the end of episode three, but he is this huge presence. You hear his name mentioned two times in the polio episode and five times in the introduction to episode five, where he has been dead for 13 years.
Many of the scholars who have worked with me – like William Leuchtenburg has for almost 35 years – understand not just the apples and oranges of scholarship but also what we are doing. They have not only brought great scholarship to our films but also helped us understand so much more about our subjects.
And we think we have shown them ways in which the particular fashions in the humanities represent period myopia. In the field I bump up against the most, history, the fashions of historiography have for more than half a century – until recently – been essentially anti-narrative, at times interested in Marxist or economic determinist theories or semiotics or deconstruction or queer studies.
Strangely enough, the popular forms that have been legitimately denigrated for their superficiality nonetheless, at least as we try to configure them, present possibilities of embracing all of those disciplines, all of those particular insights or ways of looking at or structuring materials.
The new film is not without narrative. It is not without economic, even Marxist-determinist, issues and conflicts, dialectics, that take place throughout the film. Nor is it without a consideration of what we would call today queer studies, or deconstruction, or semiotics, or other things.
We think the abandonment of narrative in the academic academy was a gigantic mistake – for the academy as well as for the rest of us – because no longer does an interest in the stories of our path trickle down as it once did. That is being corrected, but we have had to rely on popular history to return to a sense of a very essential “and then, and then, and then,” which is the building block of any narrative.
The scholars we use – who are, we believe, among the very best in their fields in this particular subject – are our friends from beginning to end. We don’t let them go if we feel they have huge concerns: thematically, structurally, or otherwise.
I am curious about the process you go through to find things: letters, recordings, articles, photos, films.
The rules are slightly different, but the scholarship we do, the patience that is required, would in no way shock a scholar, scientist, or someone doing research for a book. We spent seven years on this. If you are doing it quick and dirty, as the History Channel might (which doesn’t do history anymore anyway) or Arts and Entertainment, now called A&E (although it is neither), you might be able to assemble everything you need with a few visits to various archives.
We had to spend years. We assembled a database for this film of more than 22,000 images that are all completely described as to their provenance: where they came from, who owns the rights, and a full description of what is taking place in each one. The final film probably has 2,500 still photographs in it.
The same is true of the newsreels and of the talking heads, where a few onscreen appearances might represent three hours of interview transcripts. But with those few appearances, you can have a huge presence in an episode.
I have lived in New Hampshire for the last 35 years. We make maple syrup there. We take 40 gallons of sap to make one gallon of syrup. That sort of process is familiar to scholars and scientists, I believe. It involves a great deal of patience, which is something my medium is not always famous for. We also ask our audiences to reward our work with their attention, which is, in this day and age, a much more difficult proposition.
How do you avoid schizophrenia when you have multiple projects going on at the same time?
It is like your children. I can be up in my office, and when one of my four daughters walks in the door, I recognize her voice. I am making the same film over and over again. That is to say, each film asks a deceptively simple question: “Who are we? Who are these strange and complicated people who like to call themselves Americans? What does an investigation of the past tell us about not only where we have been but where we are and where we may be going?”
So the schizophrenia is avoided by both the similarity and the distinctions: the similarity that these are my girls, and the distinctions that Sarah, Lilly, Olivia, and Willa are about as different from each other as night and day.
From your perspective in the cinema and a deep sense of history, what is your view of the recent popular movie about Roosevelt on the Hudson? Do you consider it a travesty that trivialized the story, or does it have some redeeming historical value? Second, how do you find out roughly how large your audience is for these fantastic movies compared to the broader American movie-going audience?
Let me answer the second part of your question first while I sharpen my knife for the first half.
It is hard to measure and compare motion pictures and their box office with the ratings for public television. We know that we consistently reach tens of millions of people with a large series. The Civil War is still the highest rated. The next is Baseball, then The War (about World War II), then The National Parks, and then The Dust Bowl and Prohibition. If you take out the British import Downton Abbey, we own most of the top five highest-rated programs.
Each day school is in session, The Civil War series, which is more than 23 years old, will be shown 2,500 times. Lewis & Clark, 1,500 to 1,700 times. Baseball about 1,200 times; The War, the same. We have pretty good numbers to claim that. Unlike most broadcast television, which is skywriting and disappears at the first zephyr, our films are long-lasting.
Hyde Park on the Hudson died, I am happy to say, a very quick death. I had the opportunity to see it at the Telluride Film Festival before its release in 2012. I know a little bit about the story, and perhaps this gives me a kind of righteousness that I should temper before I give you the review I am about to give!
The film postulates that the king and queen of England – who have come to the United States to gauge where their American cousins will be for the coming war – might have gotten lost on their way from Manhattan to a hugely important picnic that takes place at Hyde Park. In the film they end up in some field of flowers. In reality, tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands of Americans lined the road every stretch of the way; there was no danger of being lost.
The film also suggests that Daisy Suckley was part of a harem that included her and two secretaries – Missy LeHand and Grace Tully, as well as his old love Lucy Mercer – a harem that Eleanor Roosevelt looked on with a kind of bemused lesbian inattention. The most egregious thing of all is the idea that Suckley was there to service the president, who is portrayed as a randy, lecherous old man. Nothing could be further from the truth.
We can complain and excoriate the liberties that were taken by the filmmaker, while exalting the great performances given by Laura Linney (as Daisy Suckley) and Bill Murray, who played FDR quite effectively, as well as a couple of scenes that were quite wonderful. But we also have to stand back and permit this to happen. I know of one other fellow who took lots of histories, conflated them, merged characters, rearranged the dates, and changed settings. His name is William Shakespeare, and we still like him for doing that sort of stuff.
So we want to make sure we leave open the door for this kind of wholesale revisionism and changing of history in hopes that we do not inherit too many JFKs and Hyde Park on the Hudsons. Unfortunately, we still have to muddle through them in order to get the few people whose license delivers extraordinary truths.
I was touched by your use of the term emotional archaeology. How do you negotiate and interact with the living members of the family as part of your research? Do they approach you? Do you approach them? And how was that interaction?
The “emotional archaeology” phrase was something I said to a reporter when I was trying to explain what I was doing. My first film was an hour-long film called Brooklyn Bridge; it was the first time people were using first-person voices, active movement within the frames of things, and complicated sound effects and music. When the reporter asked me why anyone in their right mind should watch a film about a bridge that wasn’t ten minutes or shorter, I said I had a really hard time getting it down to an hour. (As you know, my profligacy has continued since then, and with my Vietnam project I will subject you to 20 hours.)
With regard to family members: it depends. Sometimes, in intimate stories, family members are hugely important to sort stuff out: when you are able to reach out to people who knew the person and can help flesh them out, that is helpful. That was the case with my Frank Lloyd Wright and Huey Long projects, and in an upcoming film on Jackie Robinson I interviewed his widow, daughter, and surviving son extensively; we have not started editing, but I imagine they will be a huge part of it.
With the Roosevelts, you have two families – two families that were often at war with each other because of the ascendancy of Franklin Roosevelt. The Oyster Bay Roosevelts had the sense that they were the inheritors of the medal of TR, not this Democrat Franklin, who seemed to be passing them at every point along the road.
Something else that happens in families is that you become prisoners of the stories you have been told and the things you believe. We have found, particularly in this one, that it is very important to triangulate with the historians and the people who have studied your subject.
We have met most of the descendants, we love them, and we hope we have their blessings. But there will be times they will say, “This story wasn’t told,” and we have to answer, “Yeah, because it’s not as important, we think, to the larger narrative.”
But each thing is different. And at many junctures, we considered going to dozens of people from both branches of the family – the Hyde Park and Oyster Bay sides of the Roosevelts – to find some intimacies. At the end we always thought that was the prudent thing to do.
The thing that strikes me about your films is that you bring out the humanity of the central figures, but also the humanity of the people who are living there. Within The Civil War, for example, there are so many letters from people in the field; it is not just about the prosecution of the war. How do you go about achieving that kind of balance?
Well, it goes back to Ecclesiastes and the idea that human nature remains the same. We say “celebrity,” and what you are struggling not to say is “ordinary people.” What you discover is there is no such thing as an ordinary person: the complexity in each of us is worth volumes.
One of the reasons the academic academy retreated, understandably, from narrative is that it was always the history of great men. In American history, it was a series of presidential administrations punctuated by wars. (Because of my parochial and provincial nature, I am limiting my comments to American history. That is my bailiwick, and it makes me even more limited in my confidence to speak beyond it.)
The academic academy quite correctly rejected that model, unfortunately rejecting narrative at the same time, favoring instead a kind of bottom-up story that was going to tell the millions of historic stories of women, labor, minorities, and so-called ordinary people like you and me. What happened was that the pendulum just swung to the other extreme. Some historians said you could write a history of Illinois without mentioning Abraham Lincoln. That cannot happen.
What you want to have is some sort of synthesis. You want one and one to equal three. That is what I am trying to do. And I think that is what you want to happen. You want to have a top-down version – those great men did do great things – meeting a bottom-up version that is able to embrace and contain the multitudes, and thus bring in stories about labor, about women.
The approach I try to take with my films permits us to unify them and meet in the middle and to have some sense of both. There is a moment in the Civil War series that speaks directly to this. We started with Abraham Lincoln and then went to the head of the Union Army, then we went down to a corps commander, a general, and then we went down to a division, and then we went down to a regiment, and then we went down to a captain, and then we went down to an individual private. We then went over to an individual private on the Confederate side and took it back up to Jefferson Davis. That is what we try to do in every film – sometimes literally but more often than not thematically and figuratively.
If you do that, then you have the possibility to develop the kind of empathies, as well as understandings, that come from that triangulation. You only get better. As scientists will tell you, you can fix a point much more accurately if you can triangulate it. In my case, if you do it only one way, you are then subject to the fashions of historiography. And we hope to escape their specific gravity as often as we can.
© 2014 by Ken Burns
Ernest J. Moniz
Ernest J. Moniz is U.S. Secretary of Energy. He was elected a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 2013.
There are a lot of comments about the situation in Washington, D.C., right now, particularly around the shutdown and the debt ceiling. I can confirm from the front lines the absurdity of the current situation. If you look at only the science areas, the Antarctic research programs are in great jeopardy, and one of last year’s Nobel Prize winners was furloughed last week. At the Department of Energy (DOE), our Energy Information Administration went on furlough on Friday. So now essential information services that are supplied to companies and to researchers across the country – information on things like how much petroleum product we have in storage should a major hurricane occur – have been closed down.
The missions of the DOE are complex. Sometimes we are semi-amusingly characterized as the department of weapons and windmills, quarks and quagmires. We have four major missions: (1) nuclear security, nuclear weapons, nuclear materials control; (2) windmills, which characterize our work on energy technologies; (3) quarks: we remain the largest supporter of the physical sciences in this country, providing essential tools for both big science and small science, such as light sources, neutron sources, accelerators; and (4) quagmires, which refer to our legal and moral obligation to clean up the mess of the Cold War. The windmills and weapons align with the work of this Academy, particularly Academy projects on global security and energy and the global nuclear future.
Twenty-five years ago, the human genome project was a critically important undertaking. Unknown to many is the fact that this project was started by Charles DeLisi, who subsequently served as the dean of engineering at Boston University. He went from the National Institutes of Health to the DOE to head the research program on health and the environment.
When he saw the kinds of capabilities DOE had for “industrial-type science” – large, high throughput, high computation – he ran a workshop at Los Alamos that was the beginning of the Human Genome Project. The collaboration went all the way through to the end: DOE was responsible for much of the tool development and for three chromosomes being mapped. So we have a history of using our tools to go beyond what you would think of as the borders of DOE’s missions.
During my first day in office, the media picked up on a sound bite relevant to the climate-change discussion: “I’m not here to debate what’s not debatable.” The thesis we have consistently put forward, and on which I believe we are making serious progress in the political environment, is that what we know about the risks of climate change is well beyond what we need to know in order to drive prudent action on the part of the government. We can argue about what we do, how fast we do it, but we are moving beyond the issue of debating the fundamental driver to take action. Now, is everyone in Congress there? No. But we are now unmistakably getting into the issue of “what do we do?”
The statement I am making is not based upon interpreting complex results of complex models. I am not diminishing the importance of those models, but to drive action, it is frankly data and arithmetic. After all, the issue of degrees centigrade – I am not going to argue whether it is one or six – being associated with scales like doubling of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has been known for well over a century. The data tell you that that kind of a scale is enormously important for the globe.
We know how to count molecules: how many CO2 molecules are emitted in combustion of fossil fuels. And if we just naively do the arithmetic, it would be just over two decades to reach doubling. Now, we know the carbon cycle stretches that out; there is absorption in the oceans, etc. But the scales are clear. As a basis for prudent action, we don’t need to go to the complex models. The trap there, of course, is that many are looking for anomalies to point to, but never with a scientific suggestion as to why the simple counting rules don’t apply.
That is a very important part of the argument, and I believe we are making progress, that we have moved onto the next stage. But when all is said and done, we also must remember that carbon dioxide is unique among the greenhouse gases in the sense of its long (namely, centuries’ scale) persistence. As the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report said a few weeks ago, we can think of this as leading to a CO2 emissions budget for any particular level of CO2 concentrations. If one takes a standard that has been talked about – for example, 450 parts per million – it’s about two decades to run out the budget. That is not much time for the energy system.
The energy system is hard to move, but we have to move it, and this decade is critical. We have to make substantial progress in bending the curve of greenhouse gas emissions over the next ten to twenty years.
The energy business is a multi-trillion-dollar-per-year business that is highly capitalized – with huge capital requirements for assets that last a long time. Eighty percent of the business today is fossil fuel. Fundamentally it is a commodity business. So a solar energy source and a coal plant are both providing the same service to the end user: producing light. It is not like the IT world, where lots of brand-new consumer services are being offered. This makes change highly cost sensitive.
This is the framework within which we must make the transformation to a low-carbon world. Energy provides essential services for everything we do. As a result, there is no point in complaining about the nature of the business. That it will remain a highly regulated business with lots of political interest is a persistent reality.
Those are not a collection of characteristics for a nimble system, however, one that we can imagine changing in a short time. It is also why we have to start today, or start yesterday, to make the transition: over this decade-long period, we need to have made substantial progress. That is why this decade will be so critical.
I argue – and this is somewhat controversial in the government – that it is critical to accelerate the transformation of the energy system to a pace that has not been typical. But to accelerate this transformation, we have to work and do work along the entire innovation chain, from basic research to development to demonstration and deployment of the new technologies.
This is where it gets a bit more complicated. For example, loan-guarantee programs, which are supposed to advance technologies beyond where they currently sit in the marketplace: we have an active loan portfolio today of nearly $35 billion to advance a low-carbon world, and we have tens of billions of dollars of remaining authority to do more.
But even Congress itself voted for a loan-loss reserve account, anticipating that clearly we would have some failures (e.g., Solyndra) in a portfolio of this type. Our current projection is that we will not use more than 10 percent of the loan-loss reserve account, which you might assume means a pretty successful risk management process. Of course, in the political arena, having voted for something does not change the underlying game.
The president, at the end of June, did change the game when he put forward in his Georgetown speech a climate action plan (CAP). The plan is lengthy and has three overall large elements. One is to mitigate the risks of climate change, and this means essentially lowering greenhouse gas emissions over time.
Second, and this was a new step that had been avoided for a long time by many, including many in the environmental community: we have to recognize that we are already experiencing some of the impacts of climate change (statistically this is clear). Therefore, even as we mitigate, we have to start focusing on adaptation measures.
Third, we have to collaborate with other countries – China is an obvious example – because in the end, even if we in the United States show some leadership in this, we cannot solve the real problems without international collaboration.
CAP acknowledges that it would be preferable to work with the Congress for legislative remedies; however, the plan is put forward on the assumption that this will not happen in these next years. And so CAP is, roughly speaking, everything we could think of doing using existing executive authorities to advance the program.
A lot of this will be the federal government working with cities and states, where a lot of creativity is actually coming to the fore in terms of advancing climate programs.
As I said, this decade is critical for launching this transformation. Roughly speaking, we have to do three big things. First, we have to raise our game on energy efficiency, on demand-side management. Second, we have to continue, at least for some time, the increasing reliance on natural gas, because the truth is that it has been displacing coal, and that has in turn accounted for roughly half of our CO2 emissions reductions. We are now back to the CO2 emissions levels of 1995. Third, we have to innovate. We have to have the very low-carbon technologies cost-effective and ready to compete in the marketplace by the end of this decade.
A lot is going on with energy efficiency. We have doubled light vehicle efficiency standards up to 2025, and the Department of Energy, working with the Office of Management and Budget, has dislodged a real backlog of appliance efficiency standards.
We also extended the loan program. We have $8 billion in new loan authority to fund fossil fuel projects that reduce greenhouse gas emissions. We need to address fossil fuels as well as look at renewables.
While a lot of people have not been paying attention, wind, solar, LED, and electric car technologies have been reaching marketplace competitiveness. Clearly some policy incentives have been in place here, but we have always had time-limited incentives. In fact, the natural gas industry had about twenty years of incentives, and obviously now it is running on its own.
In 2012, the largest capacity addition of any single technology in the United States was wind (see Figure 1). On-shore wind now costs about 5 cents per kilowatt-hour in good wind locations. Despite a slight increase in costs a few years ago, the trend is again downward, and the cost reduction over the last thirty years is dramatic.
The Holy Grail of photovoltaic modules has been 50 cents per watt (see Figure 2). The price is now about 75 cents. Over five years, we have seen an enormous drop in these costs, and deployment has been going up; it is still small, but it is going up. Today, a utility can build a large photovoltaic farm for about $1.80 per watt, which, once you do the arithmetic (assuming a 20 percent capacity factor and a 5 percent cost for capital), works out to about 5 cents per kilowatt-hour – which is very competitive.
With the falling cost of wind and solar energy, business models in the energy industry are being challenged. That is a part of the transformation that we will need, but it’s not always smooth.
For example, in many states today you see a raging battle between established utilities and public policies on “net metering.” If you own a rooftop solar system and you are still connected to the grid – which you must be if you want to sell the power back – who pays? The utilities are now saying we need different rate structures so that everybody pays their fair share of infrastructure costs. I don’t know how it will turn out. But it is a revolution. Business models are changing.
The cost reductions for LEDs are rather incredible and are still occurring (see Figure 3). Soon after we published a chart showing that the cost of an LED replacement for a 60-watt incandescent bulb was about $15, Wal-Mart announced they were selling some LEDs at $10.
A 60-watt incandescent lightbulb lasts about a thousand hours. The LED replacement gives twenty-five thousand hours of operation. Thus, not only will you save because one replacement LED now costs less than the equivalent twenty-five incandescent bulbs; you will also save about $125 in energy costs over the lifetime of the LED. At today’s LED prices, there is no issue of this being marketplace competitive. When the bulbs cost $50, price was a big initial barrier. Now with the cost at $10 or $5, we are looking at a revolution in lighting.
Finally, the cost of lithium ion batteries for electric vehicles dropped by a factor of two from 2008 to 2012 (see Figure 4). This is still too much for the general marketplace. If the cost is, say, $500 per kilowatt-hour of storage and you want a vehicle with a substantial range, you might need 70 or 80 kilowatt-hours. That gets to be real money – something like $40,000 for your batteries. That is called a Tesla. And while Tesla has been a great success, its business model is not quite that of GM or Nissan.
Tesla is following the track of the classic disruptive technology: find your niche market, which is not so cost-sensitive, and then keep driving those costs down. Its initial goal was just to provide a great performance car. And a Tesla is really a great performance car.
Tesla is one of the companies that got a DOE loan guarantee: half a billion dollars. At the time – you might recall that in 2009 the entire U.S. auto industry was supposed to be dead – the loan was viewed as highly risky. Tesla has now paid back the loan nine years early with a premium for the taxpayer – an early repayment penalty! – and in 2014 they will have created three thousand jobs in California, and they are going to start exporting Teslas. When I was in Paris earlier this summer, I learned from the ambassador there that Parisians have placed twenty-five thousand orders for Teslas, because it’s a great performance car.
This is a tough business to move quickly because of its scale, its capital requirements, etc. But don’t look away, because mass adoption of these technologies is not always ten years out. I am optimistic that we can effect this kind of transformation.
The second part of the president’s climate action plan is adaptation. Hurricane Sandy, which was fed by higher-than-normal sea levels and somewhat warmer water, was very destructive of our energy infrastructure.
The DOE is working with the state of New Jersey to design micro-grids – although at 50 – 80 megawatts, they are not so micro – that will restore infrastructure so New Jersey will be much more resilient to future threats to the electricity system and protect key transportation routes. That is an example of rebuilding the infrastructure in a smart way. Let’s build it for good economic reasons, but build in resilience to threats like major storms.
We have to take a more integrated view. Features such as the resilience of the energy infrastructure to extreme weather events are part of it, but our infrastructure right now is under three kinds of threats that we must look at. One is extreme weather. A second is cybersecurity. The third is called “kinetic,” which is a fancy word for events such as assaults on electricity substations. The DOE is looking at all of this, bringing it together.
Hurricane Sandy taught everybody another nasty lesson: our energy infrastructures are highly interdependent: electricity, natural gas, transportation fuels, communications. In New Jersey and part of New York, when the grid went down, we could not deliver transportation fuel, partly because the preparation had not been done. We had no standard interconnects at most gas stations so that somebody could bring in a generator and get fuel pumps running.
Other countries do this, and resiliency is going to be another major focus at the DOE over the next three years. We are looking at the infrastructure and the interdependencies so that we can be more resilient during future events, which we expect will get more intense as the globe warms more.
In closing, I repeat that this is a crucial decade for action on climate change, such as accelerating innovation and building resilient energy infrastructure.
These remarks are in the public domain.
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