U.S. energy future hinges on rapid rollout of emerging clean energy technologies

WUSTL Chancellor Wrighton discusses America's Energy Future

America has the potential to solve its energy crisis over the next decade, but doing so requires a substantial immediate investment in the development and deployment of emerging clean energy technologies, said Mark S. Wrighton, chancellor of Washington University in St. Louis and vice chair of a new National Resource Council report on America’s energy challenges.

The key message of the report, said Wrighton, is that America’s long-term energy viability hinges on its willingness to expedite the rollout of new and emerging technologies for improving energy efficiency, harvesting new forms of energy and reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

WUSTL Chancellor Mark S. Wrighton

Initiating deployment of these technologies is urgent; actions taken — or not taken — between now and 2020 to develop and demonstrate several key technologies will largely determine the nation’s energy options for many decades to come, the report concludes.

Titled “America’s Energy Future: Technology and Transformation,” the capstone report summarizes findings from the America’s Energy Future project, an ongoing research effort sponsored by the National Research Council, the operating arm of the National Academy of Sciences and National Academy of Engineering.

Led by Harold T. Shapiro, president emeritus and professor of economics and public affairs at Princeton University, the project’s committee of advisors includes Vice Chair Wrighton and more than two dozen other leading academic and government science experts.

Wrighton, a chemist by training, is available to discuss findings of the NRC report on America’s Energy Future, as well as the project’s ongoing research, which is expected to yield a series of related reports in the future.

“Our committee began its work with the aim of establishing a realistic technological basis for development of policies and plans for assuring that America would have abundant, affordable energy resources with minimum adverse consequences to the environment,” Wrighton said. “Further, the committee was concerned with the need to assure America’s energy security.”

The committee’s work revealed that much can be gained by deploying existing technologies over the next 10 years to improve efficiency of buildings, vehicles and devices that consume energy.

“Fossil energy resources, including coal, gas and petroleum, will remain important, and therefore addressing the accumulation of CO2 from the use of these fuels is important,” Wrighton said. “New sources of energy need to be developed, including wind, solar and biofuels, and these will require investments in research and development.”

The committee identified important infrastructural issues that need to be addressed, including the need to modernize the existing system for transmission and distribution of electricity, and Wrighton emphasized that these systems need to be put in place quickly.

“There is much that can be done immediately that will contribute to the energy needs and environmental concerns of the United States,” he said.

A strong advocate of the need for more research on clean energy technologies, Wrighton recently invested more than $55 million to create a new International Center for Advanced Renewable Energy and Sustainability (I-CARES) at Washington University in St. Louis. Now in its third year, I-CARES encourages and coordinates university-wide and external collaborative research in the areas of renewable energy and sustainability — including biofuels, CO2 mitigation and coal-related issues.

Washington University will host a symposium on Nov. 2, 2009, to discuss America’s energy future, and the program will be announced soon. Further, through its McDonnell International Scholars Academy, Washington University will undertake a project to assess the global energy future. A symposium to address global energy needs and concerns will take place in October 2010.

The project on the global energy future will involve Washington University and its 25 research university partners in the McDonnell Academy. The symposium on the global energy future will take place at the time of the formal dedication of Stephen F. and Camilla T. Brauer Hall, which will house the University’s Department of Energy, Environmental and Chemical Engineering.

Copies of the summary edition of the America’s Energy Future report are available from the National Academies Press; tel. 202-334-3313 or 1-800-624-6242 or on the Internet at http://www.nap.edu.

Reporters may obtain a copy from Rebecca Alvania of the National Academies’ Office of News and Public Information: 202-334-2138; or e-mail: news@nas.edu.

Key findings are summarized below.

Deploying existing energy-efficiency technologies is a near-term and low-cost way to reduce U.S. energy demand, the report says. Fully deploying these technologies in buildings alone could save enough power to eliminate the need for new electricity generating plants to meet growing U.S. demand. However, some new plants would likely still be needed to address regional supply imbalances, replace obsolete technology, or present more environmentally friendly sources of electricity. Deployment of efficiency technologies in the building, industrial, and transportation sectors could reduce projected U.S. energy use by 15 percent in 2020 and by 30 percent in 2030. Even greater energy savings would be possible with more aggressive policies and incentives.

The United States has many promising options for obtaining new sources of electricity over the next two to three decades, especially if carbon capture and storage and evolutionary nuclear technologies can be deployed at an adequate scale. However, according to the report, the deployment of these new technologies is very likely to result in higher consumer prices for electricity. In addition, the nation’s electrical grid will require expansion and modernization to enhance its reliability and security, accommodate changes in load growth and electricity demand, and to enable the deployment of new energy efficiency and supply technologies, especially intermittent wind and solar energy.

In the transportation sector, petroleum will continue to be an indispensable fuel in the coming decades, but maintaining current rates of domestic petroleum production (about 5.1 million barrels per day in 2008) will be challenging. There are limited options for replacing petroleum or reducing petroleum use before 2020, but there are more substantial long-term options that could begin to make significant contributions by 2030 or 2035. Reductions in petroleum use could be obtained through increased vehicle efficiency, production of alternative liquid fuels such as cellulosic ethanol or coal-and-biomass fuels, and expanding deployment of battery electric and hydrogen fuel-cell vehicles.

Substantial reductions in greenhouse gas emissions from the electricity and transportation sectors are achievable over the next two to three decades, the report says. In both cases, adopting a portfolio approach – deploying a variety of alternative technologies aimed at reducing emissions – would be necessary. For the electricity sector, enabling this portfolio approach will require demonstrating, within the next decade, that carbon capture and storage technologies are technically and commercially viable in both new and existing power plants and in liquid fuels production. It will also be necessary to demonstrate the commercial viability of evolutionary nuclear plants.

To begin accelerated deployments of new energy technologies by 2020, and to ensure that innovative ideas continue to be explored, the public and private sectors will need extensive research development and demonstration over the next decade. The report notes that a broad portfolio approach, supporting basic research through the demonstration stage, will likely be more effective than targeted efforts aimed at identifying technology winners and losers.

At the demonstration stage, high-priority technologies include carbon capture and storage, evolutionary nuclear technologies, cellulosic ethanol, and advanced light-duty vehicles. The more long-term research and development needs include new technologies for producing liquid fuels from renewable resources, advanced batteries and fuel cells, large-scale electricity storage, enhanced geothermal power, and advanced solar photovoltaic technologies.

In addition, because many barriers exist that could delay or prevent technology deployment, the report recommends that sustained policy and regulatory actions, as well as other forms of incentives, be employed to drive adoption.

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Editor’s Note: To request an interview with Chancellor Wrighton, please contact M. Fredric Volkmann at volkmann@wustl.edu or (314) 935-5476. Washington University in St. Louis has ISDN and VYVX lines available for live or taped broadcast.