Evaluating US Energy Technology

AMERICA MAY BE drawing down its oil reserves, but there seems to be no shortage of arguments over how the U.S. might meet its future energy needs. One reason: the facts themselves need to be reliably ferreted out, along with the costs and consequences of possible solutions.

UPDATE: A final report from the America's Energy Future initiative states current and likely near-future efficiency technologies could lower projected U.S. energy use 17 percent to 20 percent by 2020, and 25 percent to 31 percent by 2030.


Below are the study's eight overarching findings. (Courtesy: National Academy of Sciences and National Academy of Engineering)

  • Finding 1: Potential for Transformational Change. With a sustained national commitment, the United States could obtain substantial energy-efficiency improvements, new sources of energy, and reductions in greenhouse gas emissions through the accelerated deployment of existing and emerging energy-supply and end-use technologies.
  • Finding 2: Energy Efficiency Potential. The deployment of existing energy-efficiency technologies is the nearest-term and lowest-cost option for moderating our nation’s demand for energy, especially over the next decade.
  • Finding 3: Electricity Supply Options. The United States has many promising options for obtaining new supplies of electricity and changing its supply mix during the next two to three decades, especially if carbon capture and storage (CCS) and evolutionary nuclear technologies can be deployed at required scales. However, the deployment of these new supply technologies is very likely to result in higher consumer prices for electricity.
  • Finding 4: Modernizing the Nation’s Power Grid. Expansion and modernization of the nation’s electrical transmission and distribution systems (i.e., the power grid) are urgently needed.
  • Finding 5: Continued Dependence on Oil. Petroleum will continue to be an indispensable transportation fuel through at least 2035.
  • Finding 6: Greenhouse Gas Emission Reduction. Substantial reductions in greenhouse gas emissions from the electricity sector are achievable over the next two to three decades. Displacing a large proportion of petroleum as a transportation fuel to achieve substantial greenhouse gas reductions will require a portfolio approach involving the widespread deployment of energy efficiency technologies, alternative liquid fuels with low CO2 emissions, and light-duty vehicle electrification technologies.
  • Finding 7: Technology Research & Development. To enable accelerated deployment of new energy technologies starting around 2020, and to ensure that innovative ideas continue to be explored, the public and private sectors will need to perform extensive research, development, and demonstration over the next decade.
  • Finding 8: Barriers to Accelerated Deployment. A number of barriers could delay or even prevent the accelerated deployment of the energy-supply and end-use technologies described in this report. Policy and regulatory actions, as well as other incentives, will be required to overcome these barriers.

This is why three years ago, a group of leading scientists and engineers decided that the time had come to look at the state of energy technology and attempt to determine what is truly feasible. The result is “America’s Energy Future,” an initiative of the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) and the National Academy of Engineering (NAE), funded by private and public sponsors including Fred Kavli and The Kavli Foundation, which provided the seed funds. America’s Energy Future (AEF) has two phases. The first focuses on sorting out the claims and counter-claims about various energy technologies; the second focuses on analyzing the range of possible policy solutions.

Phase I was completed this summer, producing a series of reports to establish what NAS executive Peter Blair calls a “definitive technology base” for future policy debates. Now Phase II has begun and, when concluded, AEF expects to provide a range of recommendations wide enough to find takers across the political spectrum.

Phase I Completed

The AEF initiative grew out of meetings beginning in August 2006 of the governing councils of the NAS and NAE. Maxine Savitz, a former Honeywell Inc. executive who serves as vice president of the NAE, recalls that the presidents of the two academies – Ralph Cicerone of the NAS and Charles M.Vest of the NAE – each saw energy and climate change as important topics worthy of a joint effort. The academies finalized the initiative plan in February 2007 and launched the initiative amid, Blair recalled, “an awful lot of information going around the county about solutions to our energy challenges.” The hope, Blair says, was that “we could stop arguing about whether ethanol was net energy-negative or net energy-positive, or whether nuclear energy was to be cost-effective in the next decade.”

To succeed, AEF enlisted a 25-member “study committee” organized into seven subgroups focused on specific technologies and issues such as nuclear energy, fossil fuels, electric transmission and energy efficiency. According to committee chair Harold Shapiro –retired president of Princeton University and past chair of the National Bioethics Advisory Committee – the mission has been to “look at large swathes of the energy sector and ask what technology could accomplish.” Joining Shapiro on the committee was a blue-ribbon list of distinguished scientists, engineers and economists – most of whom are members of either the NAS or NAE. The committee also included a former head of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (Richard Meserve) and the first deputy administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency (Robert Fri). Nobel Laureate Steven Chu was on the committee until he left in January 2009 to become Secretary of Energy. Three other committee members, William Brinkman, James Markowski and Warren Miller, have since gone on to senior posts in the Obama Administration.

The Phase I report was issued in July. Mixing encouragement with caution, it sees huge potential for savings from energy efficiency without the need to develop new technology. “Accelerated deployment of existing energy-efficient technologies in the buildings, industry and transportation sectors,” it states, could wipe out projected increases in energy consumption at least through 2030. The report is more cautious about new technologies that appear – in theory at least – as ideal solutions to the twin challenges of energy independence and global warming. Carbon capture and sequestration (CCS), for instance, would enable America to use its huge coal and gas reserves for electric power without adding greenhouse gases to the atmosphere. Yet carbon capture still needs to be achieved at the scale of a full-size power plant, and no one has shown that carbon dioxide can be stored permanently, without leaks, underground. The report also has a dose of realism for biofuels boosters, saying petroleum will “continue to be an indispensable transportation fuel” for at least the next two decades.

Harold Shapiro, Chair of the Committee on America's Energy FutureHarold Shapiro, Chair of the Committee on America's Energy Future (Courtesy: National Acadermy of Sciences)

Shapiro believes the future of energy production depends greatly on “two things we don’t know.” One is whether the technology of carbon capture and sequestration “becomes viable at scale.” If it does, then coal has a big future and the shift to new modes of energy production would be evolutionary. If not, then the change would have to be more like a revolution. The nation “would really have to push wind, solar and biofuels, as well as natural gas.” The other big question, Shapiro says, is “whether we can build nuclear plants on time and at scale.” Despite advances in nuclear technology and signs of an improving political climate for nuclear power, the AEF study found that building nuclear plants was still a high-risk investment for utilities in the United States. 

The Phase I study urges that both CCS and new nuclear power-plant designs be tested as soon as possible in multiple, large-scale projects. It suggests that the CCS test would require from 15 to 20 retrofit or new demonstration plants, and that about five power plants would be needed to adequately test new nuclear technology. Why so many projects? Shapiro answers that implementing a new technology is inevitably a trial-and-error process no matter how good the technology looks on paper. “The first attempt never gets to what you want,” he says. With CCS, he says, only full-scale projects will determine which geological formations can keep greenhouse gases sealed up and which will leak; the first try may only keep 40% of the gas safely underground.

Green Mountain Energy Wind Farm, near Fluvanna, TexasTexas now ranks highest among states for wind capacity, according to the American Wind Energy Association. Pictured: Green Mountain Energy Wind Farm, near Fluvanna, Texas. (Public domain)

In contrast to the tentative state of new energy production technology, the AEF experts found energy efficiency to be a pleasant surprise. “I was taken aback by how much potential there was to save energy while saving money,” says Lester Lave, an economist at Carnegie Mellon University and leader of the initiative’s efficiency panel. “This idea that we could get all this energy efficiency was new to me.” The study says wider use of existing technology could cut energy use by 15% below the federal baseline projections (which assume no change from current practices) by 2020 and 30% by 2030. Blair says this reduction can prevent the need to build power plants for an entire decade and “buys time for development of new technologies” such as CCS. And this doesn’t include the effect of conservation -- energy-frugal behavior like keeping lights off more and driving less.

Beginning Phase II

The timing of the initiative has also worked out well -- although somewhat by accident. “We had hoped to finish a month or two earlier” with the Phase I report, says Shapiro. But Congress was also taking its time to agree on energy and climate legislation. The report ended up arriving just after the House narrowly passed its bill and well before the Senate had crafted its version. One result has been a busy schedule of briefings for members of Congress and their staffs. Savitz and Fri both have testified to congressional committees, and Savitz says the AEF’s work has been well received on both sides of the aisle.

Callaway Nuclear Power Plant in Callaway Co., Mo.An aerial view of the Callaway Nuclear Power Plant in Callaway Co., Mo. -- one of 106 commercial nuclear reactors generating electric power in the U.S. (Courtesy: Union Electric)

The Phase II study, with its focus on policy options, is likely to get at least as much attention, though it may not settle all debates. Blair says it is now in the priority-setting phase, with likely focus areas including energy efficiency and the importance of upgrading the nation’s electric grid. As Lave points out, the role of the initiative (and of the academies in general) is to define the science of the possible – to outline the current state of knowledge and to assess different courses of action in light of technology and economics. “Our role is not to say, ‘Buddy, this is what you need to do,’” says Lave, but rather to lay out the options and say “here are some policies that are cost-effective and here are some that are hopelessly expensive.”

AEF and its reports are funded by a diverse group of public and private backers. Along with The Kavli Foundation, they include the W.M. Keck Foundation, Intel Corp., General Motors, GE Energy, the Dow Chemical Co. Foundation, BP America, the U.S. Department of Energy and the endowments of the national academies. According to Savich,

Fall, 2009