GAO shines harsh light on advanced energy technology research

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. 

Many technical, cost and environmental challenges must be overcome in developing and demonstrating advanced technologies before they can be deployed in the US with greater impact.Those were just some of the not-too-encouraging conclusions the Government Accountability Office told the Subcommittee on Energy and Environment, Committee on Science and Technology today.

The DOE’s fiscal year 2009 budget, as compared with 2008, flies in the face of advanced energy development by seeking slightly less budget money for renewable energy R&D, while seeking increases of 34% for fossil energy R&D and 44% for nuclear energy R&D. added Mark Gaffigan, the GAO’s acting  Director of Natural Resources and Environment.

For better or worse the GAO said the DOE’s recent R&D focus in renewable energy has been in biomass-derived ethanol;  hydrogen-powered fuel cells; wind technologies; and solar technologies. The primary focus of ethanol and hydrogen R&D is to displace oil in the transportation sector. The primary focus of wind and solar technologies is to generate electricity.

According to the GAO report, here’s where that research stands:  

 ·          Ethanol: DOE’s short-term R&D goal is to help meet the administration’s goal of substituting 20% of gasoline consumption in 10 years with alternative fuels, primarily biomass-derived ethanol. DOE’s longer-term R&D goal is to develop new technologies to allow the ethanol industry to expand enough to displace 30% of gasoline requirements—about 60 billion gallons—by 2030. In 2007, industry produced over 7 billion gallons of ethanol, displacing about 3% of the nation’s oil consumption. Ethanol, however, faces high production and infrastructure costs, creating challenges in competing with gasoline nationally. Ethanol refiners in the United States rely mostly on corn as a feedstock, the use of which has contributed to price increases for some food products, and ethanol’s corrosive properties create challenges in developing an infrastructure for delivering and dispensing it, the GAO said.  DOE’s R&D focuses on developing a more sustainable and competitive feedstock than corn, primarily by exploring technologies to use cellulosic biomass from, for example, agricultural residues or fast-growing grasses and trees; reducing the cost of producing cellulosic ethanol to $1.33 per gallon by 2012 and $1.20 per gallon by 2017.  Although DOE has made progress in reducing ethanol production costs, cellulosic ethanol in 2007—based on current corn prices—still cost about 50% more to produce than corn ethanol, the GAO said. 

·          Hydrogen-powered fuel cells: The long-term R&D goal of DOE’s Hydrogen Fuel Initiative is to provide hydrogen fuel cell technologies to industry by 2015 to enable industry to commercialize them by 2020. To be commercialized, hydrogen fuel cells must be competitive with gasoline vehicles in terms of price, convenience, safety, and durability. Hydrogen is the preferred fuel for vehicle fuel cells because of the ease with which it can be converted to electricity and its ability to combine with oxygen to emit only water and heat as byproducts, the GAO said. The DOE has made important progress in developing hydrogen fuel cells, but the program has set very ambitious targets and some of the most difficult technical challenges––those that require significant scientific advances––lie ahead. Specifically, R&D for vehicles includes reducing the cost of commercial-scale manufacturing of fuel cells by nearly fourfold, storing enough hydrogen on board a fuel-cell vehicle to enable a 300-mile driving range, and increasing the durability of fuel cells by more than threefold to match the 150,000 mile life-span of gasoline vehicles. DOE’s fiscal year 2009 budget request would reduce funding for the Hydrogen Fuel Initiative by 17% from $283.5 million in fiscal year 2008 to $236 million in fiscal year 2009. The budget also proposes to increase the proportion of longer-term R&D by increasing the funding for basic research. Although the Hydrogen Program Manager told us that funding is sufficient to meet target dates for critical technologies, other target dates for supporting technologies—such as hydrogen production from renewable sources—would be pushed back, according to the GAO. 

·          Wind technologies: DOE is assessing its long-term vision of generating 20% of the nation’s electricity using wind energy by 2030. Its current R&D efforts, however, are focused on more immediate expansion of the wind industry, particularly on utility-scale wind turbines.  One of DOE’s targets is to increase the number of distributed wind turbines deployed in the United States from 2,400 in 2007 to 12,000 in 2015. Although wind energy has grown in recent years, from about 1,800 megawatts in 1996 to over 16,800 megawatts in 2007, the wind industry still faces investors’ concerns about high up-front capital costs, including connecting the wind farms to the power transmission grid, the GAO said. 

·          Solar technologies: DOE’s R&D goal is for solar power to be unsubsidized and cost competitive with conventional technologies by 2015 by, for example, developing new thin-film photovoltaic technologies using less expensive semiconductor material than crystalline-silicon to reduce solar cell manufacturing cost. Specifically, DOE is working to reduce the costs of photovoltaic systems from about 18-23 cents per kilowatt hour in 2005 to about 5-10 cents per kilowatt hour in 2015. DOE is also conducting R&D to reduce the cost and improve the reliability of concentrating solar power technologies, which use various mirror configurations to convert the sun’s energy to heat to generate electricity. Investors’ concerns about high up-front capital costs are among the most significant challenges in deploying photovoltaic or concentrating solar energy technologies. This requires both technologies to have lower costs for installation and operations and maintenance, better efficiency of converting solar power to electricity, and longer-term (20 to 30 years) durability. 

·          Clean coal technologies: DOE’s R&D goal is to reduce harmful power plant emissions to “near-zero” levels by 2020. For new power plant applications, DOE is developing and demonstrating advanced integrated gasification combined cycle (IGCC) technologies. In 2003, DOE announced plans to construct a near-zero emissions commercial scale R&D facility called FutureGen with an alliance of coal mining and coal-based electric generating companies. DOE had originally pledged about three-quarters of the estimated $1 billion cost of the FutureGen project. With escalation costs and rising price of materials and labor, the estimated project costs rose to nearly $1.8 billion. As a result, DOE announced in January 2008 that it is restructuring FutureGen to focus on multiple, competitively selected projects that demonstrate carbon capture and sequestration at commercially viable power plant project sites. The impact of DOE’s restructuring on FutureGen at this time is not known, but an industry official from the FutureGen Alliance noted that the project cannot go forward without federal government assistance. 

Because it is unlikely that DOE’s energy R&D funding alone will be sufficient to significantly diversify the nation’s energy portfolio, coordinating energy R&D with other federal programs, policies, incentives, standards, and mandates that can impact the nation’s energy portfolio will be important for targeting any desired goals to change the nation’s energy portfolio, Gaffigan stated.  

A key factor to any sustainable deployment of advanced energy technologies will be to make them cost competitive, while addressing technical and environmental challenges, so that the market can support a more diversified portfolio. Otherwise, without sustained higher energy prices for our current portfolio, or concerted, high-profile federal government leadership, US consumers are unlikely to change their energy-use patterns, and the U.S. energy use will not significantly change.

Recently a diverse committee of engineers and scientists - including Larry Page, co-founder and president of products, Google, Robert Langer, Institute Professor, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and Robert Socolow, professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering, Princeton University Environmental Institute - came up with a list of the greatest engineering challenges for the 21st centrury.  Many of the challenged had to do with develoing advanced energy resources

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