What to Do About Energy?

Hooked on Carbon-Based Fuels

The shortest route to energy self-sufficiency is the electric car. At least in the short run.

So says Vikram Rao, executive director of the Research Triangle Energy Consortium. He says this because the numbers are daunting and the options limited. More than 85 percent of all energy used in the U.S. comes from fossil fuels – coal, oil and natural gas. These energy sources also account for about 66 percent of our electricity and practically all fuels used in transportation.

Historical data has shown that wholesale changes in energy use can take up to 50 years to mature, so where does one look to make an immediate impact? The next nuclear power plant won’t be on-line for decades, and wind and solar power don’t appear to be scalable enough to make a difference.

That leaves carbon-based fuels as a target and transportation as the most inviting place to make an immediate impact. In the U.S., that means the automobile.

While different forms of electric cars exist, the sticking point has always been the battery, or more generally, storage of electricity. Rao believes that electricity storage should be an energy-related Grand Challenge because it will facilitate other advances.

“Energy storage is the challenge that was missed in the NAE Grand Challenge list,” Rao said. “Efficient and inexpensive storage would enable practical electric vehicles, for example, and is certainly needed for the intermittent sources of energy like solar or wind.”

Watch Rao's spotlight address.

Obviously, the electric car won’t solve the problem, but it helps illustrate the challenge of the energy issue. To make matters yet more complex, any new energy source needs to be less deleterious to the environment than carbon-based fuels. There aren’t any quick or easy solutions.

So what is being done?

The Department of Energy, for example, is attacking the issue in a similar way as the military – give creative people funding to support their outrageous, though theoretically possible, ideas. The 10-month-old agency, known as the Energy Advanced Research Projects Agency-- ARPA-E, similar to its military cousin Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA)—has $400 million, and its program director Mark Johnson is eager to spend it.

“This new agency is designed to address the big issues with ideas that are high-risk, high-return,” said Johnson, who is also on the engineering faculty of North Carolina State University. “We expected 1,000 proposals and got 3,000. There are now 37 research teams funded – 95 percent were under contract within 90 days.”

Johnson’s ultimate boss, Kristina Johnson, DOE’s undersecretary of energy and former Pratt dean, highlighted a host of other initiatives designed to not only to address the energy production issue, but to also curb the production of greenhouse gases. She cited such initiatives as tightening auto emission standards and approving loan guarantees for the construction of two nuclear power plants.

“It is not business as usual at the Department of Energy,” Undersecretary Johnson said, touting the need for industry-government collaborations. “Secretary (Steven) Chu has said that the new DOE must break down silos in order to create a clean energy culture.”

Undersecretary Johnson also described a new joint program with the National Science Foundation in the proposed 2011 budget called RE-ENERGYSE (REgaining our ENERGY Science and Engineering Edge). It is an education and outreach campaign intended to attract all levels of students to science and technology careers, especially women and underrepresented minorities.

Programs like this and others have immediate, as well as long-term, implications. The average age of employees in the energy transmission sector is 52.

Watch Johnson's keynote address.

“The average tenure of our workforce is more than 25 years,” said Mark Wyatt, vice president for Smart Grid and Energy Systems at Duke Energy. “Within the next five to ten years we could go over the cliff and lose up 50 percent of our employees. And most of these are high-end jobs.”

Wyatt added that not only is the industry’s workforce aging, but so are the physical assets, such as plants and power lines. He said that development of smart grids, which connect electricity transmission from the plant to the meter and into the appliances within the home or equipment within businesses, can help make the system more efficient. But still, he said, more trained workers will be needed.

Throughout all the discussion of technology and research, the audience was reminded repeatedly that solutions to the energy problem will not be found in a technological vacuum – any serious actions will involve society as a whole.

David Hill, who was born in the U.K. and now serves as the deputy laboratory director at the Idaho National Laboratory, used the example of his own country in 1970s to illustrate how politicized energy policy can be. During the oil shock of the early 1970s, the coal and power workers were also on strike, and the government responded by rationing power. By the next election, the government was out of office.

“Energy is number one issue facing the world, and it involves so many different players, such as science, engineering, public policy and most definitely politics,” Hall said, adding that after the 1970s oil shock, France engaged is an ambitious plan to make nuclear power the central form of electricity in the country. The people and government supported this effort.

That same commitment will be needed here in the U.S. for whatever the next dominant source of energy will be.

Watch discussion.