Dan Arvizu was obviously pleased to hear President Obama address the country regarding energy security last week. As the director of the National Renewable Energy Lab for more than six years, he has watched the cycle of shock and trance from a front-row seat. While he is excited about some of the momentum (and funding) that clean energy is receiving now, Arvizu is worried that this complicated topic is still a significant distance from garnering the sophisticated conversation that’s needed to truly move to a new energy economy. He acknowledged that even with the focus on upheaval in the Middle East and the tragedy in Japan, “there is not a burning platform” in the U.S. to transform energy policy.

Still, Arvizu is guardedly optimistic. “Things are happening despite morass,” he told Greentech Media during the opening day of the Bloomberg New Energy Finance Summit. Outside of more upheaval and calamities, there are some ways to move forward in Arvizu’s view.

  • Come up with objectives. An energy policy must have clear goals if it’s going to get anywhere. There are three major ones: competitiveness, carbon and security. The latter is the easiest to use to build consensus, because “no one is against security,” he said. But one is not enough. Outside of federal objectives, there is movement on a smaller scale because moving quickly in the sustainability space comes with local and regional economic benefits. “That’s a compelling case in many regions of the country,” he said. “Energy, a lot like politics, is regional.”
  • Provide some certainty. He finds that most utilities he speaks to would prefer deregulation to the current uncertainty in the market. Efficiency demands a new business model.
  • Separate the conversation of clean transportation from the issue of renewable electricity generation.  Those two sides of the same clean energy coin will take very different drivers and different needs from government.
  • New buildings, not retrofits, are going to lead the way. “What possesses us to think that doing things the same way is the best way forward?” Arvizu says that until builders embrace more efficient new construction techniques, it will never truly trickle down to the retrofit market. But once it takes hold, it will move quickly. “I’m a subscriber [to the belief] that the market will pull that when it becomes compelling,” he said.
  • Building technology is where the low-hanging fruit is. You have the builder and then the tenant. You need to monetize a benefit to the person making the investment. “You don’t want to be shoving a lot of green electrons into an inefficient system,” he said.

Arvizu sees a lot of technologies in his lab, and while some are still in early stages, he also feels that renewables are ready for primetime today. He pointed to solar, which he believes can reach grid parity, and biofuels, which are quickly moving from cellulosic ethanol to hydrocarbon.

But he is also seeing opportunities that are passing the U.S. by. With all of the excitement of coming electric vehicles, he is worried that we are putting all of our eggs in one basket. “We’re missing a big bat” by not also funding hydrogen fuel cell vehicles, he said. “Taking a rabbit off of the track is immature.”

Second-generation solar, while dropping in price, is also in danger of being lost to China. First generation is long gone, he said, but he suggested that if second-generation solar is lost to other countries, the following generations of innovation and construction will very likely not happen here.

But there are plenty of opportunities to make the right decisions. “When we get serious about it, we’ll change it,” he said. “We’re not serious yet.”