Dan E. Arvizu will take his seat as the eighth director of the National Renewable Energy Laboratory on Friday. The federally funded, privately managed lab is the premier U.S. research institution for renewable energy and also conducts research into energy efficiency.  Its goal is not only to pioneer new technologies, but to get the fruit of its endeavors into the marketplace.

All I know about Mr. Arvizu is what I read in the DOE press release and what little is available about him on the Internet. He seems to have plenty of the right credentials and experience for the job. I wish him well.

But a new director won’t mean more money for the laboratory, which will be operating on around $200 million again this year, about a sixth of the nation’s entire renewables and efficiency budget. That’s less than half the 1980 budget of NREL’s predecessor, the Solar Energy Research Institute (SERI), where I went to work in 1978. Indeed, this year’s entire R&E budget, which is poking at the $1.3 billion level, is only 40% of the R&E budget of a quarter century ago. It ought to be 400%. That would put it in the range of three months worth of what we’re spending on Iraq.I’m sure Gristmill readers have their own choices for how an enhanced R&E budget could be spent. However, my pet for $250 million or so is one that SERI operated until Ronald Reagan chopped the staff by two-thirds in 1982: outreach.

In its early days, SERI worked with and helped fund SUN centers in four states. Their highly visible mission was to encourage, cajole and educate Americans regarding the installation of renewable and efficient energy sources in their homes and businesses. Like the rest of us at SERI who weren’t working in the hard sciences, the SUN centers were expendable — both practically and philosophically — when the axe fell. Such “social” programs, the critics said, had no place in an institution like ours.

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Today, most states have their own energy offices — some modest, some less so — but none has an outreach budget worth spit. If every state had a viable, out-in-the-public-eye SUN center — perhaps funded with a combination of federal, state, and private money — the nation could go a long way quickly in getting Americans to take advantage of already existing ways to generate and save energy right in their own houses.

And that, ultimately, would make Arvizu’s job more productive, as the next generation of products assisted into existence by NREL reached the market.

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