2013’s government shutdown didn’t stop the United States Department of Energy (DOE) from moving forward on a range of initiatives to ramp up renewable energy, promote energy efficiency, and combat climate change. Leading the efforts to ensure that America continues to lead in the global clean energy race, is Assistant Secretary for Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy (EERE), Dr. David Danielson. With a diverse background as a clean energy venture capitalist, and the first program director at DOE’s Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E), Danielson brings a wealth of both private and public sector experience to EERE. Danielson recently talked with us about the work his office is doing on making the building industry and federal government more sustainable and transitioning the nation to a clean energy economy.

Inhabitat: What is DOE doing to make the building industry more sustainable?

Danielson: My office, the Office of Energy Efficiency & Renewable Energy (EERE) is working with the building industry to develop affordable and sustainable building products and design solutions that reduce energy waste in buildings, enhance comfort and productivity, and save U.S. families and businesses money on their energy bills. You might be surprised to know that Americans spend more than $400 billion each year to power and heat their homes and commercial buildings. Cutting energy use by 20 percent could save us more than $80 billion annually on our energy bills, and wouldn’t require any major new technological breakthroughs.

To increase building efficiency, we created the Better Buildings Initiative. This is a Presidential-level initiative that set a bold national goal to increase energy efficiency across the U.S. commercial, industrial, and residential sectors by 20% over the next ten years. To take on this bold goal, the DOE assembled a group of more than 200 leading organizations from the public and private sector that were ready to rise to the President’s challenge, including public sector leaders like the City of Cedar Rapids, Iowa, and the state of Arkansas, in addition to a wide array of leading American companies like Costco, Target, and Applebee’s. EERE works with this group to share knowledge and take action to make commercial buildings more energy efficient.

Inhabitat: Can you talk about the progress being made to make buildings more energy efficient through the Building Technologies Program?

Danielson: EERE’s Building Technologies Office has made great strides in advancing building energy efficiency by supporting the development and deployment of technologies and systems to reduce building energy use by up to 50%. We’re investing in America’s top innovators, and have developed partnerships with the private sector, to develop the next generation of building efficiency technologies across the board – in lighting, HVAC, windows, insulation, sensors and controls, and appliances.

Inhabitat: How are DOE facilities and other government buildings being made more sustainable?

Danielson: The Energy Department operates at 47 locations across the United States and is committed to reducing its environmental impact by implementing cost-effective improvements and upgrades, and by installing on-site renewable energy production capabilities.

We utilize performance-based contracts to fund our federal energy efficiency and renewable energy deployment activities, such as Energy Savings Performance Contracts (ESPC), which allow federal agencies to complete energy-saving projects without up-front capital costs or Congressional appropriations. For example, our Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Oak Ridge, Tennessee recently completed construction of a biomass steam plant that will save nearly $4 million and cut 20,000 tons of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions per year. The Department is also installing efficient heating, cooling, and lighting systems and is requiring the use of energy metering in its buildings.

Inhabitat: Where are we as a country in terms of transitioning to a clean energy economy, and how far do we have to go? Is the goal 100% renewable energy?

Danielson: At the beginning of his first term in 2009, President Obama set a bold national goal to double U.S. renewable electricity generation from wind, solar, and geothermal sources by the end of 2012, and in January 2012 the United States surpassed this goal, generating enough renewable energy in the United States to power more than twelve million homes. This year, the President extended this goal to double renewable energy generation a second time by 2020.

Inhabitat: Can you talk about your previous work at Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E)? Is any of that innovative research seeing the light of day yet?

Danielson: I came to government from the private sector in 2009 as the first employee at ARPA-E, where we had the chance to build a new agency from scratch. It allowed us to think creatively about the right way to build an agency, so we used a lot of the best practices learned from the Defense Department’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) model, which has been incredibly successful. ARPA-E is all about funding the development of out-of-the-box “high-risk, high-reward” new energy technology pathways. So ARPA-E has been a great addition to the DOE portfolio.

Inhabitat: You were a clean energy venture capitalist before joining ARPA-E. How can the power of the markets be used to combat climate change, and transition to clean energy and energy efficiency? What role does the government play in steering markets away from fossil fuels and towards renewable energy?

Danielson: President Obama has called for an “all-of-the-above” energy strategy that develops all sources of American energy, and the Energy Department is working to utilize all domestic energy resources while increasing our ability to compete in the global clean energy race. The need for cost-effective and sustainable energy solutions is one of the most important global economic development races of the 21st century. Winning this race will create jobs in American innovation and manufacturing, enhance our energy security by moving away from dependence on foreign oil, save money for American families and business, and protect our air and water from the harmful impacts of climate change.

EERE is supporting strategic investments in clean energy technologies that complement those of the private sector and we are getting great results. For example, EERE research since 2008 has helped reduce production costs of automotive lithium-ion batteries by more than 50%, and EERE supported the deployment of the first U.S. commercial tidal energy system, which came online just last year.

Inhabitat: What are some of the most exciting projects you are currently working on at EERE?

Danielson: One particularly exciting project is EERE’s Clean Energy Manufacturing Initiative, which is aiming to increase U.S. competitiveness in the production of clean energy products – a key economic opportunity for America to innovate, compete, and lead the way in a growing global marketplace. It supports a greater focus on manufacturing R&D for energy-efficient manufacturing technologies and for the manufacturing of clean energy technologies. On December 12, we co-hosted the inaugural American Energy and Manufacturing Competitiveness Summit, in partnership with the Council on Competitiveness.

Our EV Everywhere challenge focuses on the efforts of American companies to be the first in the world to produce electric vehicles that are as affordable and convenient for the average American family as today’s gasoline-powered vehicles by 2022. Vehicle battery costs are on track to drop to about $10,000 per unit by 2015 – a target and trajectory which we believe will help make electric vehicles a cost-competitive option for consumers in the U.S.

Finally, the SunShot Initiative is a collaborative national initiative to make solar energy cost competitive with other forms of energy by the end of the decade. EERE’s efforts have catalyzed growth in a sector that has more than doubled the U.S. supply of solar power in recent years, reduced installation costs by more than 30 percent, cut overall system costs in half, and grown to employ more than 100,000 people in all 50 states.

Inhabitat: How can the United States continue to lead in energy efficiency and renewable energy?

Danielson: After decades of successful investments in energy technology, the United States finds itself at a unique moment in our energy history where a surprisingly wide array of clean energy technologies – from solar modules, wind turbine blades, and batteries for plug-in electric vehicles to highly efficient LEDs and advanced biofuels – are now within 5 to 10 years of being directly cost competitive without subsidies. We need to continue to make strategic investments that will help accelerate clean energy research and development and ensure the United States leads the global clean energy economy.

When looking at economic growth, clean tech jobs had an annual growth rate that was twice as fast as the jobs growth rate in the overall economy in recent years. These trends need to continue to keep America competitive, to secure a more prosperous middle class, and to protect our environment from the worst effects of Climate Change. The global race for clean energy is one America can’t afford to lose.

Images via Department of Energy