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Federal official to speak here on renewable efforts

U.S. Undersecretary of Energy Kristina Johnson will be the featured speaker next week for the first in a series of breakfast forums on renewable energy in the Rochester area.

Johnson, confirmed for the federal post in May, previously was provost and senior vice president for academic affairs at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. She has been a professor at the University of Colorado and dean of the Pratt School of Engineering at Duke University.

"I’m interested in the work force," Johnson said. "That’s why I’m thrilled to come to the University of Rochester. I’m interested in our educational system, and I’m interested in the research and development that’s going to put Americans back to work."

The breakfast will be from 7:30 to 9:30 a.m. Oct. 9 at the University of Rochester’s Laboratory for Laser Energetics on East River Road. Online registration is required by the end of today. More information is available at www.simon.rochester.edu/renewenergy.

The Renewable Energy Entrepreneurship Breakfast Series is slated to include 10 forums, the second of which is Nov. 20 at Rochester Institute of Technology, with a goal of identifying possible business opportunities in the region.

The series was organized by a task force that includes representatives from Finger Lakes Wired, UR, RIT, High Tech Rochester Inc., Monroe Community College and Genesee Community College.

It comes as federal funding for Finger Lakes Wired and 12 other regional initiatives throughout the country draws to a close early in 2010. The Wired program is designed to link education, work force and economic development to create an entrepreneurial and industry-driven system.

"We’ve built a pretty strong relationship within Monroe County but also in the outlying nine-county region," said Duncan Moore, vice provost for entrepreneurship at UR and director of its Center for Entrepreneurship. "It would be a shame to see this all go for naught."

The task force met twice and decided to launch two initiatives, Moore said. One involves work force issues. The other involves the energy sector.

The hope for the energy-related breakfast series is to educate entrepreneurs and investors about renewable energy, he said.

"For the typical entrepreneur, there are no regulations," he said. "In the energy sector, there are a huge number of regulations. The pricing, the standards … you can’t just do anything you want.

The 10 breakfast sessions are scheduled to continue through May 2010, with one session each this month, next month and in December. The seven others will be scheduled every two or three weeks beginning in January, Moore said.

The November speaker is venture capitalist Sean Peterson, a senior associate with Good Energies Inc. The December speaker will discuss regulatory issues.

The topics for the remaining meetings are solar energy, wind energy, biofuels, fuel cells, geothermal, smart grid and storage, Moore said. Dates and locations have not been announced.

"These are not technical talks," Moore said. "These are not research ideas. The format is to have a speaker to speak about the industry and tell us where that industry is going, where the issues are and what the business opportunities are.

"We hope to know after a few weeks of this what the interests are in terms of entrepreneurship, then whether it makes sense for us to run a program that would be much more in-depth about renewable energy."

Moore pursued Johnson as the Oct. 9 speaker because she was scheduled to be in Rochester for a ceremony involving UR’s newly named Edmund A. Hajib School of Engineering and Applied Sciences.

Johnson serves under Energy Secretary Steven Chu, who was graduated from UR and was a co-winner of the Nobel Prize for physics in 1997.

Johnson talked about her appearance in Rochester, and her vision for renewable energy, in an interview this week with the Rochester Business Journal. An edited transcript of the interview follows.

Alternative energies

ROCHESTER BUSINESS JOURNAL: What is your sense of the mood of the public for alternative energies?

KRISTINA JOHNSON: The mood of the public is that this is an exciting time. Energy is on everybody’s mind. We want to know how we’re going to conserve energy and save dollars. The economy is challenged, so people are looking for ways to be efficient and conserve. One of the roles of the Department of Energy is to further that and to help society be more focused on energy conservation.

I think the public is quite interested in alternative energy. I think we’re interested in nuclear energy. This is a time when we can really move forward and make a difference. It’s a very exciting time, and I think people feel that. Also, I think they’re looking for new industries and new jobs.

It reminds me of the early 1960s, when Sputnik (the Soviet Union’s series of unmanned space flights) went up. The mood of the country was that our excellence and world-class, premier status in science and engineering was challenged, and the government and the people responded. I think we’re in the same position now.

Nuclear power

RBJ: Is the public more accepting now of adding nuclear facilities?

JOHNSON: Engineering is about optimizing the system under constraints. You cannot bring on all the renewables without adding to the base load or the grid crashes. You have to have widely available, low-cost base-load energy.

There is going to be nuclear energy. There is going to be, in the future, carbon-capture sequestration (long-term storage of carbon dioxide and other forms of carbon) techniques. It’s going to be part of the portfolio. That’s going to enable us, then, to have a broader mix, a more diverse mix, of our energy. That includes wind, solar and biopower.

RBJ: How cost-effective will alternative energies be?

JOHNSON: Estimates say we spend a half-trillion dollars a year on our energy. We spend more than a half-trillion a year. We export a half-trillion a year for the oil we consume. So it’s costing us money now. If we take a long-term perspective, 20 or 30 years from now we can look back and say what we did in the early part of this century set up the country to be more self-sufficient in our energy needs, with lower costs and great jobs.

We use about 20 percent of the world’s energy consumption. The rest of the world is going to come up, and they’re going to need more access to energy. It’s a tremendous opportunity for the U.S. to give back, and to do it in a way that’s environmentally sensitive and does not put more greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. It will build our economy, it will build the world economy, and it’s a way to use energy as diplomacy.

RBJ: Where does the U.S. rank in comparison with other countries in building its alternative energy portfolio?

JOHNSON: China is now the largest producer of solar power. It’s going to be the largest consumer in the future. We have opportunities in thin film (cells), lower-cost organic materials, copper indium, gallium and selected selenides. The Department of Energy, with the Recovery Act, is supporting companies in this country that do this kind of manufacturing and deployment. For solar deployment, about two-thirds of the jobs are in installation.

RBJ: How much of your job involves convincing others that alternative energy is this country’s best hope for the future?

JOHNSON: My role is to present an integrated portfolio of the best we can do in terms of renewables and base load of energy, and to make sure we solve the problems the administration has put forward as being the most important.

One is to reduce greenhouse gases. Two is to make sure we import within a decade less oil than we currently import from Venezuela and the Middle East. Third is to create jobs and stimulate the economy. That’s what drives me.

Coming to Rochester

RBJ: Why did you decide to come to Rochester?

JOHNSON: (Engineering school) Dean Robert Clark is a very dear friend of mine and was my senior associate dean when I was dean of engineering at the Pratt School of Engineering at Duke University. I understand the transformative effect of the naming of a school on the future of an institution.

The second reason is, as a former provost and dean, I understand the importance of training and educating the next generation in order to prepare our work force for what Secretary Chu calls the new industrial revolution of our time-that is, green and clean energy.

Rochester has been famous for decades for its optics programs. There are a lot of dear friends at the University of Rochester in the physics and optics departments that I’m looking forward to seeing. And I’m also interested in taking a first-hand look at the laser energetics lab.

RBJ: What will be the focus of your breakfast speech?

JOHNSON: When I was at the University of Colorado, we had an optics center and we looked at translating advances from university to industry. I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about this and have been involved in startups and commercializing technologies, and identifying those valleys of death we need to move across and the role of government now in helping to get the research translated into commercial products.

10/02/09 (c) 2009 Rochester Business Journal. To obtain permission to reprint this article, call 585-546-8303.

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