Six actions desperately needed to fix US energy problems

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Reversing the country's critical reliance on oil for energy is a challenge not for the faint-hearted.

A report out today by the National Science Board perhaps over optimistically says the federal government needs to step up to the plate and lead the charge on the issue:  The current US energy economy is carbon-intensive and does not adequately value the environment and sustainability as public goods. In contrast, a sustainable energy economy values environmental and ecosystem stewardship, as well as clean, equitable, reliable, renewable, safe, secure, and economically viable energy strategies and solutions. Transforming toward a sustainable energy economy requires national leadership and coordination, a new U.S. energy policy framework.

You may recall that the NSB, which is made up of 25 presidentially appointed researchers from a variety of universities and companies such as Purdue, Cisco respectively as well as the National Science Foundation, had its hand in the "14 grand engineering challenges for the 21st century" issued last year that sought to incite researchers into developing technologies that would greatly improve how we live.

The NSB said today that the "fundamental transformation of the Nation's current extractive fossil fuel energy economy to a sustainable energy economy is a critical grand challenge.

But can the government actually drive the necessary changes? For example, a report last year noted that while the US Department of Energy has spent $57.5 billion over the past 30 years for research & development on advanced energy technologies such as Ethanol, solar and wind power the nation's energy usage has not dramatically changed-fossil fuels today provide 85% of the nation's energy compared to 93% in 1973. 

With that as a backdrop, the group made six key recommendations that it says the government must address to help the country change its energy policies.  They include:

1. Feds lead by example: Achieving a secure and abundant supply of sustainable energy is a critical national goal. The US Government must adopt a forward-looking, long-term, coordinated strategy for achieving a stable, sustainable, and clean energy future. This strategy must substantially increase investment in sustainable energy technology research; establish appropriate market conditions to facilitate development and widespread deployment of sustainable energy technologies; educate and train a workforce to address energy challenges; and advocate energy efficiency and energy conservation measures.

2. R&D money: Within the current environment, the level of Federal support for sustainable energy research and development is inadequate to meet the scale and scope of the challenges for achieving sustainable energy solutions. Federal support for sustainable energy R&D, which is not limited to direct financial assistance, should be substantially increased and applied to a wide range of energy technologies upon which the sustainable energy economy can be based. The unique circumstances of the energy challenge - attempting to transform an already established sector and market with legacy technologies - will require active Federal attention to all stages along the R&D spectrum: basic research, applied research, development, demonstration, market commercialization, and deployment. In addition, given the relationship between energy and environment, understanding and applying the basic science of the climate system, the carbon cycle, and climate change is essential.

3. Change course: The current energy economy does not adequately value or reward the attributes of sustainable energy solutions relative to those for the use of non-sustainable energy. Commitment to sustainable energy policies will require development of methods to integrate scientific and technical information with social, economic, and environmental concerns.

4. Get smart: Human capital development in the sustainable energy sector is vital to the discovery of sustainable energy solutions, as well as to the achievement and maintenance of a sustainable energy economy. Institutions of higher education and the private sector must train and retain talented specialists in energy research and skilled technicians in energy-related specialties. The US must substantially increase efforts in education and workforce development related to sustainable energy research and technology development and deployment.

5. Go global: Limited international engagement and collaboration on sustainable energy solutions are inhibiting progress toward critical multilateral and bilateral actions. The US should develop and lead a coordinated strategy for international involvement in sustainable energy research, development, and deployment - involving active engagement and collaboration with industry in both developed and developing countries. Early engagement, direct involvement, and active dialogue with other nations are essential for ensuring international cooperation, mutual innovation, and progress in sustainable energy technologies.

6. Energy awareness: Strong public consensus and support for sustainable energy issues are needed to achieve a national transformation for a sustainable energy economy. The government should promote national public awareness of sustainable energy solutions, energy consumption, and energy efficiency. In addition, it should strategically engage with the public to motivate sound consumer action.

The report notes that about one-third of energy delivered in the US is eaten up by the industrial sector, and one-half of that is consumed by three industries (bulk chemicals, petroleum refining, and paper products). The transportation sector accounts for the second highest share of total end-use consumption at 29%, followed by the residential sector at 21% and the commercial sector at 18%.  Petroleum is the highest energy source at around 40%, followed by natural gas (23%), coal (22%), nuclear electric power (8%), and renewable energy (7%). The transportation sector has historically consumed the most petroleum, with its petroleum consumption dramatically increasing over the past few decades. Petroleum accounted for 95 %of the transportation sector's energy consumption, the report states.

The repot also encourages the more rapid development of the "Smart Grid" to make the electricity grid more efficient, reliable, and capable. Updating and improving the current antiquated electric grid involves many challenges because its critical infrastructure is deteriorating and is unable to handle increased electricity load to accommodate projected increases in US energy demand. Failure to adequately address these challenges by developing an advanced Smart Grid could lead to severe economic disturbance from increasing interruption of electricity distribution and vulnerability from threats and natural disasters, the report states.

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