The US Department of Energy (DOE) released its inaugural Quadrennial Technology Review on Tuesday, laying out a longer-term strategic agenda to help integrate energy research and development programmes.
Modelled on the Defense Quadrennial Review, an influential analysis that sets the tone and direction of US defence policy, the document explores the energy department’s role in driving basic energy research and helping shift more mature technologies into the commercial sector.
The review sets priorities in six areas (pictured, top right) in order to create a multi-year framework that can be incorporated into planning and budget discussions. Under each of the six umbrellas can be found a range of potential technological solutions — from better batteries to biofuels and carbon sequestration — that will need to be deployed in concert in order to meet demand for energy, increase domestic supplies and reduce greenhouse-gas emissions. The agency is aiming for technologies that can create jobs and have a substantial impact — on the order of 1% of US consumption — over the course of two decades.
“The timescale of energy is decades,” Energy Secretary Steven Chu said during the public release in Washington. “We need to take a long view.”
In truth, the administration doesn’t have a lot of choice but to take the long view. The bulk of its energy and environmental agenda (remember the global warming legislation?) has fallen prey to partisan politics and an epic financial crisis. Moving forward, the administration will have to fight for even the most basic investments in clean energy R&D, a sad reality only made worse by the scandal over the failed solar manufacturer Solyndra.
And although nobody would argue with efforts to craft a strategic plan to guide energy investments (which can rise and fall according to political whim on an annual basis), the first quadrennial review largely hews to the current course without making any radical recommendations for change. “Frankly it seems almost self evident to us,” said Steve Koonin, undersecretary for science.
Unlike the military, which can in a sense create its own market for new technologies, DOE necessarily plays a transitional role in technology development. All of its R&D is geared toward commercial deployment, and there’s only so much government can do to create private markets, which depend not just on science and technology but also public sentiment and risk perception, not to mention the full suite of macro- and micro-economic forces. For that reason, the document recommends setting up a permanent group within the DOE that can focus on energy markets, business, policy analysis and, most intriguingly, social sciences.
Both for perspective and as a reminder, we will end with a spectacularly ambitious list of goals set by the administration of Barack Obama. To say that achieving these goals will be difficult is an understatement; clearly the rate of progress will need to increase substantially in the out years, which of course highlights the danger of long-term thinking that is not backed by legislation. Only one of these initiatives could conceivably be guided to fruition by the current administration — and then only if Obama wins re-election next year. Here they are, taken verbatim from the Quadrennial Technology Review:
– Reducing oil imports by one-third by 2025.
– Supporting the deployment of 1 million electric vehicles on the road by 2015
– Making non-residential buildings 20% more energy efficient by 2020
– Deriving 80% of America’s electricity from clean-energy sources by 2035.
– Reducing greenhouse-gas emissions by 17% by 2020 and 83% by 2050, from a 2005 baseline.