The U.S. Government & Renewable Energy: A Winding Road

By Allan R. Hoffman, Pan Stanford Series on Renewable Energy, Volume 7; Pan Stanford Pub. Ltd., Singapore, 134 pages, ISBN 978-981-4745-84-0

This book recounts the work of Dr. Allan Hoffman, who first took an interest in energy issues as a young assistant professor of physics at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, with a Ph.D. in low temperature solid state physics from Brown University. He joined a faculty lunch discussion group on nuclear energy and quickly became a popular speaker who presented a technical case against nuclear power. Hoffman then served as the APS representative in the second class of Congressional Fellows in 1974. He accepted a position on the Science Subcommittee of the Senate Commerce Committee as the only scientist on the committee's staff. Hoffman describes his struggles to learn the ins and outs of our political system, a learning curve up which all Congressional Fellows scramble.

In 1976, Hoffman was asked to prepare a comment for the Carter transition team on energy issues while still serving on the commerce committee staff. This assignment brought opportunities for him in the Executive Branch, and he accepted a political appointment as head of the Department of Energy (DOE) Office of Advanced Energy Systems in 1978. DOE had just been established in response to the OPEC oil embargo of 1974. Hoffman was immediately asked to lead a multi-agency study, "A Domestic Policy Review of Solar Energy" where the term "solar energy" encompassed the full range of renewable energy technologies. Hoffman not only dealt with the myriad practical problems of quickly getting the huge project underway but also insisted on public input to the study which was completed at the end of 1978 and published early in 1979.

As Carter prepared to leave the White House, funding for renewable energy programs lost out to funding development efforts for biological synfuels. Hoffman resigned from DOE and moved to the Energy Productivity Center of the Mellon Institute. The Reagan administration focused on nuclear energy and fossil fuels, and the national effort on renewable energy technologies survived barely thanks to a few dedicated DOE program managers. In 1982, Hoffman joined the Office of Technology Assessment as an energy consultant and then, a few months later, he joined the National Academy of Sciences/National Research Council as Executive Director of the Committee on Science Engineering and Public Policy COSEPUP. He directed high profile policy studies and briefed the Science Advisor to the President on a variety of R&D issues. Unfortunately, his duties did not include studies on energy issues.

In 1991, Hoffman accepted a position as Associate Deputy Assistant Secretary in the DOE Office of Utility Technologies. He was able to stay in the Office of Utility Technologies as deputy to the political appointee for Deputy Assistant Secretary. His boss was interested in renewable energy programs so Hoffman worked well with him in establishing a number of efforts at DOE which are described in this book providing the reader with a wide-ranging, very broad introduction to renewable energy technologies under development. Hoffman eventually became involved in Israeli/Palestinian negotiations and quickly became an expert on the interface between potable water and energy. He also played a leadership role in the showcasing of renewable energy at the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta, a tradition followed by subsequent Olympics. He became involved in DOE’s co-operative programs with other countries including Germany, Korea, Japan, China and the European Union. These programs supported international R&D on renewable energy. With the advent of the Bush-Cheney administration, Republican political appointees took over leadership of the DOE. They had little interest in renewable energy. Hoffman accepted a two-year detail as Senior Advisor to Winrock International’s Clean Energy Group to work on water/energy issues. Back at DOE in 2003, he assumed a position in the Office of Policy and Budget of the Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy (EERE) of DOE. His position was that of an elder statesman who could be called upon to undertake special projects. He also had considerable control over his own schedule and budget. Although he was 70 years old, Hoffman stayed at the DOE to take advantage of the Obama administration’s interest in renewable energy technologies. He was assigned to support the inexperienced head of the offshore wind energy program. Once again he found himself on a steep learning curve about a new technology. He retired at the end of 2012.

The book concludes with a summary of the renewable energy situation today and an optimistic look at its future.

In addition to providing a summary of programs in renewable energy in the U.S. and internationally, this book presents very accessible summaries of the technologies under development in the field. Perhaps more importantly, this thin volume provides a rare look at the role a scientist can play in developing programs in R&D, including the challenges and frustrations of working for the federal government. It should be of particular value to physics students considering careers in government agencies since it highlights both the available rewards and the numerous challenges. Hoffman writes with unusual honesty and presents an unvarnished and unique view of the work that a dedicated physicist can do in developing programs and promoting research on new and needed technologies. I strongly recommend it to all physicists and especially to those interested in influencing policy in support of new technologies and younger people interested in applying their physics training to making national policy.

Ruth H. Howes
Professor Emerita of Physics and Astronomy
Ball State University

These contributions have not been peer-refereed. They represent solely the view(s) of the author(s) and not necessarily the view of APS.