Mason and Powell: Preserving Tennessee's clean energy tradition

Mason and Powell: Preserving Tennessee's clean energy tradition

September 14th, 2017 by Thom Mason and Rich Powell in Opinion Times Commentary

Oak Ridge National Laboratory's Spallation Neutron Source facility is seen in 2015.

Photo by Dan Henry /Times Free Press.

Clean energy innovation has been an essential part of Tennessee's fabric for more than eight decades. Tennesseans have continued to contribute to some of our nation's most significant energy technology breakthroughs, and in the process created jobs, increased international competitiveness, enhanced national security and lowered energy costs.

But a word of caution ahead given the busy budget season on Capitol Hill: We must have sustained federal energy innovation investment or risk losing much of the promise being built right here in the Volunteer State.

Here's just a taste of what we've accomplished — and what's at stake.

Founded as Clinton Laboratories during the World War II effort to develop the technology to produce and separate plutonium for the Manhattan Project, it shouldn't surprise that the Oak Ridge National Laboratory was one of the first to recognize the potential of nuclear energy development. Oak Ridge has had 13 research reactors that formed a foundation of our understanding of commercial nuclear power.

Thom Mason

Thom Mason

Photo by Contributed Photo /Times Free Press.

Rich Powell

Rich Powell

Photo by twitter.com/powellrich

The first new nuclear power reactor of the 21st century, the Tennessee Valley Authority's Watts Bar 2, is in Rhea County. Oak Ridge also developed highly advanced computer models that, in partnership with TVA, were used to precisely simulate the startup of Watts Bar 2 and may be crucial to the next generation of U.S. nuclear plants.

The lab also has proved to be a valuable partner with businesses to break down market barriers in renewable power and energy efficiency. In collaboration with Whirlpool Corp., Oak Ridge helped develop a refrigerator that cut energy use by 40 percent. The lab also operates the Manufacturing Demonstration Facility, where companies experiment with carbon fiber and other innovative fabrication materials and methods. The center has accelerated new designs to market for cars, jets and wind turbines.

Oak Ridge recently received a $40 million grant for its Center for Bioenergy Innovation (CBI) to continue its groundbreaking biofuels and biomass research. CBI investigates new ways to greatly reduce the cost of biofuels through genetic modification and chemistry development. Continued investment in bioenergy will lower costs and increase value for America's farmers.

The breakthroughs at Oak Ridge aren't limited to energy.

It's one of the world's top facilities to examine materials at the nanoscale, which means it is driving the development of new materials designed for better structural, chemical, electronic, or biological performance. As part of efforts to understand the fundamental building blocks of nature, a new element was recently added to the Periodic Table — Tennessine — because of the work being done at Oak Ridge. Now that's pretty cool.

ORNL's supercomputer TITAN is the fastest in the U.S. and fourth fastest in the world, allowing government, universities and businesses to tackle new research that was previously impossible.

For Tennessee to continue those and other advancements, the Department of Energy must provide sustained and proper investment in energy innovation and research.

Traditional energy and energy efficiency sectors employ more than 100,000 Tennesseans and roughly 6.4 million nationwide. Oak Ridge alone employs 4,800 people in research and mission support staff.

Tennessee is extremely fortunate to have Sen. Lamar Alexander, who has used the reins he holds as the Senate's leading energy appropriator to help ensure that federal energy innovation funding has been strong. His partner on the House Appropriations Committee, Chuck Fleischmann, together with the whole Tennessee delegation, have a proud tradition of support for appropriate federal investments in early state research and development, but tighter budget constraints and tough spending decisions in the coming weeks could threaten U.S. leadership in key areas of science and technology.

We want to thank Sen. Alexander, Rep. Fleischmann, and other lawmakers who are already supporting energy innovation in Tennessee. But we encourage you to reach out to your elected officials to let them know you support a stronger, more innovative Volunteer State. Together, we can have affordable, clean energy that continues to strengthen our state's economy and future.

Thom Mason is a former ORNL director and Rich Powell is executive director at ClearPath Foundation.

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