Second in a series. Click here for part 1.
In the fall of 1978, Steven Chu joined Bell Laboratories for what was supposed to be an enlightenment tour, a broadening of his horizons, before heading back to a professorship at the University of California, Berkeley.
Chu found the atmosphere "electric," and he never returned to the university.
"We felt like the 'Chosen Ones,' with no obligation to do anything except the research we loved best," he wrote in his Nobel Prize autobiography. "The joy and excitement of doing science permeated the halls. The cramped labs and office cubicles forced us to interact with each other and follow each others' progress. The animated discussions were common during and after seminars and at lunch and continued on the tennis courts and at parties."
Now Chu, as secretary of the U.S. Department of Energy, is applying the concept as part of his campaign to reshape energy research and development in the United States. One idea is that a small team of scientists, representing diverse disciplines, can form a "hub" to develop innovative ways to cut the energy use of commercial buildings. They account for roughly a fifth of the country's energy use, but have not improved their efficiency in decades.
DOE and other federal agencies have funded the Greater Philadelphia Innovation Cluster for Energy-Efficient Buildings, or GPIC, as the unit to take on this challenge. One of GPIC's first goals is to make over a decaying facility at the Philadelphia Navy Yard -- known as Building 661 -- to prove energy retrofits can deliver.
Currently, the hub team is outlining its plan of attack. Architects, engineers, contractors and businesspeople are using computer models to figure out where the lights, insulation, furnaces, solar panels and other systems should go. The goal is to make these systems work better together, cutting the building's energy use by half relative to a comparable office building.
GPIC expects to settle on a design in the next six months or so, and then the sledgehammers and buzz saws arrive. Over the next year and a half, Building 661 will be gutted and renovated.
If all goes well, GPIC will make the building its headquarters, a place to continue its research and a "living lab" for green-building skeptics to visit. In 2015, when the hub's first award of federal cash runs out, GPIC will have to convince Congress it's worthy of another five-year endowment; if Congress says no, GPIC will have to find another cash source or scale back its ambitions.
For the teams that designed the atom bomb, radar, even Bell Labs' transistor, one common factor was a selection of superstars from different scientific backgrounds. Then, shoving them into close proximity forced them to trade ideas, recognizing each others' blind spots. Where any one scientist could only perceive part of the proverbial elephant, together they could get a sense of the whole beast.
But researchers can get lost in their genius, drilling into ever more esoteric questions. To keep them focused would take a hammer -- an "empowered scientist-manager," as the Department of Energy calls it: someone who understood the science just enough to support what was working and scuttle what wasn't.
It's an attempt to find the perfect balance of smarts and speed, freedom and focus.
One target is 'prosperity'
And it goes a long way toward explaining Mark Alan Hughes, one member of GPIC's cross-disciplinary team.
"I'm a poverty guy," he says in a talk-radio tone. He's racing through ideas in marketing, environment and finance, and swinging in his chair as he goes. He reclines, resting his Converse All Stars -- no laces -- on an adjacent seat.
"It was never about carbon reduction; it's about poverty reduction," he said. "It's not about polar bears; it's about prosperity."
Hughes' career has ricocheted between academia and the policy world, always with a focus on urban poverty. In 2008, he became the first director of Philadelphia's Office of Sustainability.
At GPIC, he leads the team targeting policy, markets and behavior -- but he seems to think of it as how to deal with people.
When a building owner says he doesn't want to spend money on insulation, Hughes says, it doesn't necessarily mean he's not interested in energy savings -- it means he needs a financial mechanism with a longer vision that costs him nothing up front. And these exist: They're being piloted in Los Angeles and Berkeley, Calif., for example.
A dicier topic is energy benchmarking: requiring all buildings to measure and share their energy performance. Philadelphia is considering a mandatory disclosure law, taking after places like New York City, Seattle and San Francisco.
That can, and has, raised hackles from owners who say these laws stigmatize their old buildings. But Hughes thinks this group can be outflanked. Other cities, he said, have worked with renters -- the companies and people that pay utility bills -- to build a coalition and pass disclosure laws.
Doing that in Philadelphia, Hughes believes, would make the market for energy efficiency more transparent, allowing the business community to factor it into business decisions.
"You're not trying to penalize," he says. "It's to incentivize the owners of those lousy buildings to improve -- because we believe the improvements pay for themselves."
If Hughes' assignment is to work on people and the policies that affect them, it's Henry Foley's job to work on Hughes -- and the rest of his talented staff.
Foley is GPIC's executive director, and to understand his job, it helps to know he has three others. On any given day, he is also the vice president for research at Pennsylvania State University, dean of the university's Graduate School, and president of the Penn State Research Foundation.
Sometimes he has time to get into the weeds at GPIC; sometimes he doesn't.
"There's not always time; sometimes it's lumpy and clumpy, if you know what I mean," he said.
When he has time, Foley has no trouble handling the science. His 30-year career as a chemical engineer has included lab research at Penn State and the University of Delaware, he has consulted for Dupont and Monsanto, and he worked for a firm eventually absorbed by chemical giant BASF. Anyone who has used an oxygen tank or a laser printer has benefited from his work.
His real role, however, is to play the "empowered scientist-manager." One loose translation of that: Round up progress, support what works and kill what doesn't.
It was decided early on, "when we put the proposal together to the team, that I would be that guy," he said. "I would be that guy who would make the hard decisions because we needed that, and when the time came, they'd have to realize that it wasn't all going to be fun and games."
It's never easy to end a program. But when that conversation comes up at Penn State, he said, "I'm happy to say that most of my colleagues are pretty logical about things."
March 24, 2010, may have felt like Groundhog Day for Steven Chu. More than a year after the proposal of the first Energy Innovation Hubs, he was before the House Appropriations Committee, struggling to communicate his vision for DOE's new research direction.
Throughout the last year, he and other White House officials had fielded lawmakers' questions about Energy Frontier Research Centers, the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy, and the hubs -- mystifying new programs for a Congress increasingly attuned to government waste.
"I want to be clear: This is not a kitchen-sink approach," he testified to the committee. "This is coordinated, prioritized, with a full view of where we are going to have to put these pieces together."
"Discovering new energy solutions will take smart collaborators pushing the frontiers of science. It will take risk-takers working out of their garages. It will take robust research teams on a mission. And it will take a Department of Energy that brings together the different parts of this research strategy to accelerate the innovation process," Chu said.
An uncertain future for hubs
However clear that message was, Democrats then led the House and Senate, and soon DOE had cash for the program.
A band of Republicans, led by Rep. Ralph Hall (R-Texas), protested. They wrote that while they generally supported investments in research and development, government spending was excessive, the programs unnecessary and duplicative, and the focus too distracted from basic research -- the government's only forte. The hubs presented a classic case, they said.
Nevertheless, Republicans haven't thwarted them entirely. Since fiscal 2010, the Department of Energy has requested 12 Energy Innovation Hubs. Congress has funded five, two since the midterm elections.
They have also demanded greater accountability from the hubs: proof that they're not redundant with other DOE activities, and proof that they've set milestones and are meeting them, for example. DOE expects to deliver progress reports on the hubs in April, a spokesperson said.
The next act comes in 2015, when GPIC returns to Congress to show its results. If Congress is impressed, GPIC may receive another five-year term.
If it is not, GPIC may be the first hub to fall under the budget ax.
Asked what his defense would be, Paul Hallacher, GPIC's director for management and administration, said, "I don't think it needs to be funded forever." He thinks that within five years, the hub's work, on Building 661 and elsewhere, will have gone a long way toward showing building owners and developers that retrofitting old buildings is a sure way to make money.
"And I think it will be self-evident that anybody who's interested in really trying to help solve the energy problem will see continuing this hub as a good investment by the taxpayers," he said.
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