In This Issue
Our Energy Future
June 1, 2002 Volume 32 Issue 2

New Energy Frontiers

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Author: Richard H. Truly

We should adopt an "investing in the future" approach to energy rather than the current "borrowing from the future" strategy.

America's energy enterprise is the lifeblood of our economy and our daily lives and is at the heart of our national security and survival as has been vividly brought home to us in these past frightful months. Coming on the heels of two years of power shortages and price volatility, the events of September 11 have triggered changes in how we value energy and how we think about energy issues. These changes will not be short term or temporary.

Energy transformation and use are all about engineering. In the past American century, we witnessed one engineering marvel after another. Engineers turned imagination into reality in so many ways: from automobiles to powered flight, from the construction of cities on Earth to exploration of our moon and planets, from the building of interstate highways to the creation of the Internet; and today engineers are bringing biology and engineering together. These and a thousand other things have created a gargantuan demand for energy. How will we meet our growing demand for energy? Why should we change from the energy system we have today? To answer these questions, we have to take a moment to appreciate our current sophisticated energy enterprise and its consequences.

The United States uses about a hundred quads of energy every year, and every American uses about six times the world average. Our energy consumption is divided roughly equally among transportation, buildings, and industry. About 73 percent of our energy is produced in the United States, 85 percent of it from burning fossil fuels. Although we have more than 100 nuclear power plants, coal still generates more than half of our national electricity. In my home state of Colorado, coal provides 83 percent of our power. Despite the current dominance of coal, however, most new electricity generating capacity is fired by natural gas. To transport our energy, we rely on 400,000 miles of oil and gas pipelines and 160,000 miles of long-distance high-voltage transmission lines. Our natural gas and electric industries are undergoing restructuring, and recently, Americans have experienced high volatility in the prices of electricity, natural gas, and gasoline. Our transportation relies almost exclusively on oil, nearly 60 percent of which arrives in tankers from abroad, and that percentage is climbing.

The argument for continuing with this system goes something like this. It would be generally less risky--and more likely to yield returns in the short term--to build on existing energy technologies and infrastructures than to switch to new ones. And given the projected abundance and relative low cost of fossil fuels, a "business as usual" approach seems very plausible. If we adopt higher efficiency processes and new technologies that recover marginally economical resources, we can minimize the impacts on future generations for some time to come. We could also manage wastes better and further reduce traditional pollutants, such as nitrogen oxides (NOx), sulfur oxides (SOx), and particulates. In short, our current approach appears to be low in risks and regrets.

Changes on a Planet-Wide Scale
My concern is that, in the long term, this scenario might not be as risk and regret free as it appears. We would remain heavily dependent on depletable fossil hydrocarbon resources that would have to be extracted from increasingly remote and distant places. Someday, the incremental increase in the cost of finding the next unit of increasingly scarce fuel will reach a point of diminishing returns, putting upward pressure on costs even with sophisticated recovery methods. By adding wastes to our sinks of land, water, and air, we will certainly experience adverse consequences to our economic and ecological systems. But the most daunting ecological uncertainty from the combustion of fossil fuels is that it accounts for 75 to 80 percent of the carbon dioxide (CO2) released to the atmosphere resulting from human activities. Our engineering choices for reducing CO2 are limited. Either we can significantly reduce or eliminate them, or we can sequester CO2 to offset potential global climate changes. Or we can wait and

see and hope for the best.

What about the risks to our energy security? The events of the past few months have vividly reminded us of the vulnerabilities of our current energy infrastructure. As a nation, we rely on an extensive and complex energy infrastructure, much of it vulnerable to acts of terrorism, accidents, and acts of nature. In my view, energy security is national security.

But to understand the situation in our own country, we need to step back and look at it in a broader context. Global population recently passed the 6 billion mark. A National Research Council report in 1999 estimated that, by 2050, the population will increase to about 9 billion and will still be growing, although more slowly. The great majority of this growth will occur in developing countries, rather than industrialized countries. The most urgent needs of people in developing countries, many of whom have no electric power today, will be for clean water, clean air, adequate food, and good health. These needs will take priority even over education and the search for ways to provide and build a decent living. People everywhere see our standard of living and want it for themselves.

If these economies were actually able to raise their standard of living to a standard anywhere near that of industrialized nations, global per capita energy consumption would soar, and the rate of energy consumption would far outstrip the rate of population growth. Therefore, it is in our interest to help find a way to meet this huge demand for new energy, particularly in the emerging megacities across the globe. Ensuring that people everywhere have a secure, sustainable, acceptable quality of life may be the most critical engineering challenge we face today.

Perhaps the most compelling evidence of the effects of our life style on the Earth can be seen from space. Twenty years ago next month, I lifted off on my first space mission aboard Columbia. My first real view of Earth was both beautiful and startling. From the Los Angeles Basin to Mexico City to Tokyo, the effects of humankind's energy emissions were visible and sobering. In January 2002, in a BBC interview from Earth orbit, U.S. astronaut Frank Culbertson, the commander of Expedition Three aboard Space Station Alpha, noted that in the last 10 years the view of Earth from space has changed markedly. Earth is increasingly marred by smoke and dust, and environmental destruction is increasingly visible. Culbertson believes the changes are a cause for great concern, and I couldn't agree more. The National Academy of Engineering also recognizes the importance of these issues and has established a new Earth systems engineering initiative to assess energy production, environmental engineering, and global change.

The Importance of Earth Systems Engineering
Based on these observations, facts, and projections, I have concluded that our current "business as usual" approach should be called the "borrowing from the future" approach. The current energy situation reminds me of Edna Saint Vincent Millay’s famous stanza about herself: "My candle burns at both ends;/It will not last the night;/But ah, my foes, and oh, my friends--/It gives a lovely light!" Although it is, indeed, a lovely light, we are depleting our storehouse of fossil fuels, become increasingly reliant on vulnerable infrastructures, and are continuously adding wastes to our environment. Although we have little choice but to continue down this path in the very short term, we are creating debts for future generations.

A New Energy Destination
I believe our most important task for the future is to define a new energy destination and chart a course for it, even if the journey takes half a century or more. I invite you to imagine with me the attributes of our grandchildren's arrival point. The energy destination will be affordable, flexible, and reliable enough to meet the changing needs of a diverse population of energy consumers in a predictable manner. It will be as secure as possible from disruptions from acts of terrorism and nature. It will be safe and environmentally clean enough that it does not overtax Earth's ability to handle wastes, and it will be extremely energy efficient in production and use. It will rely on a mix of fossil, nuclear, and renewable energy sources, in a combination that emphasizes sustainable resources. But the acid test of success is that it must support human activities at a standard of living equal to or better than today's without reducing options or incurring debts for future generations. This is a tall order, but I think it is imperative that we raise the bar--now--to this level of expectation.

Our current energy system will not change quickly, and, considering our utter dependence on it, should not. But I believe we must begin the transition, and it can be made with far less risk than the risk of staying the course of our current "borrowing from the future" condition. I call the transition strategy "investing for the future."

Transition to a Sustainable Energy Future
Human history is defined by major transitions. We should expect and, perhaps, even welcome them by now, but change is difficult and skepticism abounds. As Arthur C. Clarke, the famous futurist and science-fiction writer, observed, "People tend to overestimate what can be accomplished in the short run but to underestimate what can be accomplished in the long run." A low-risk transition to a sustainable energy future will have to combine modest, well planned investments in new technologies with enlightened public policy to create a flexible portfolio of options that will lead to incremental changes in the near term and paradigm shifts in the long term.

So what are our options for creating a new destination with these attributes? First, although our future energy supplies will include fossil, nuclear, and renewable energy sources, our destination attributes will require a much different mix than we have today. Second, we will have to increase substantially the efficiencies of both energy production and end use. Third, we will have to find ways to mitigate the environmental consequences of fossil and nuclear wastes. And, because renewable energy is not completely free of environmental consequences, we will have to minimize those impacts as well. Fourth, increasing our indigenous energy resources can improve our energy security and stability by reducing our reliance on fuels imported from afar.

Another significant option for improving our security is to reduce our reliance on large, interdependent central energy production and delivery systems. In fact, we can already begin to move toward more distributed energy systems that are networked but can operate independently if necessary. Distributed systems will provide both increased security and improved reliability. More efficient use of energy can protect us against volatility in energy prices and reduce energy costs.

Strategic Considerations
Strategically, the transition will require market momentum, sound public policy, and a commitment to research and development (R&D). Because our energy future will evolve from our existing infrastructure, the change will be gradual, the result of incremental changes over a long period of time.

The transition will ultimately have to be market driven. Markets, which tend to address consumer needs directly, can make things happen, and a market-driven transformation is likely to be persistent in meeting consumer needs. Today, for example, international markets are leading the way for renewable energy and creating growing opportunities for U.S. technologies.

But sound public policy must also play a key role in the transition to a sustainable energy future. Markets deal with the here and now but do not have a planned destination, which is the role of a stable, well considered public policy. It is evident from the current proposed national energy policy, and proceedings under way in Congress, many states, and at the National Academies that policy discussions are well under way. Important early considerations should be to provide incentives for early adopters (consumers and industries) of available technologies (1) to lower their risk and reduce their long-term investment and (2) to accelerate the development of new technologies.

Even if the strategy is market driven and based on sound public policy, it will fail without a commitment to a revitalized national R&D program. R&D will be the third component--the underpinning for bringing promising technologies to the marketplace. First, we must invest in basic energy research. Basic science, which provides the fundamental foundations for technological breakthroughs, is a powerful tool in the creation of new products for the marketplace. Scientific research also provides a degree of technological insurance against unpleasant surprises, such as global climate change occurring faster or causing greater consequences than predicted.

Second, we will need substantial improvements in smart operational systems integration (another NAE initiative). Our current electric grid was designed mostly for the one-way flow of electricity from central station power plants to consumers and is fairly vulnerable and inflexible. The electricity infrastructure of the future will have to be more networked to provide the services and meet the security needs of future energy customers. The infrastructure should be integrated, intelligent, and capable of two-way power flow so that the full value of distributed generation can be realized.

Third, the R&D development program must actively demonstrate through pilot-scale tests and field demonstrations that new technologies work. Technological uncertainties may represent risk, and failure can lead to economic penalties, safety risks, or damage to equipment. Pilot-scale tests and field demonstrations can significantly reduce the likelihood of early commercial failures. Scientists and engineers will be essential to a successful transition. America's best and brightest engineering and science professionals and students must be engaged in this endeavor.

Signs of Change
In some ways, the transition has already begun. You can see signs of this in marketplace trends, changes in policy, and emerging technologies. Consider market trends. U.S. energy consumers have always demanded low-cost energy, but with the advent of the information age and increasing business competition, they have been demanding new and much higher standards. As a result, lowest price is no longer the only concern of modern energy consumers. Large numbers of businesses and even homeowners are demanding unprecedented levels of reliability and quality, driven partly by round-the-clock business practices and a greater reliance on digital appliances.

The energy director of Oracle Corporation, Jeff Byron, explained it this way. "It is not the cost of electricity that drives our decision-making process, it is the cost of not having electricity." Oracle, like many other companies, must operate 24 hours a day, seven days a week. A very brief, even a millisecond, glitch in the electric power supply can result in staggering costs for chip manufacturers, stock brokerages, communications firms, and biotech companies. This fact of life is also true for many process industries, such as the pulp and paper and plastics industries, for which computer process control is becoming commonplace. Today's electric infrastructure, which typically provides "three nines" reliability (equating to outages of 9 hours per year) was simply not designed to provide the high quality service these customers need. We will have to find different solutions. Customers are also increasingly demanding more choice as to who supplies their electricity and new energy products, such as "green" power and highly efficient appliances.

In energy policies, significant changes are emerging at all levels of government. Although major energy bills making their way through Congress differ in many specifics, they also have many common elements: incentives to encourage greater energy efficiency, expand production, and use clean energy technologies; and R&D on distributed energy resources. The issues of deregulation and competition are being addressed partly at the federal level and partly at the state level.

New Technologies
New developments in technologies may provide the best evidence of changes to come. In the electricity sector, for example, the costs of wind energy has been dramatically reduced. Wind and photovoltaics are now the fastest growing generation technologies (annual rates of more than 30 percent) in the world. Photovoltaic efficiencies have steadily improved, with some technologies operating at 34 percent, almost competitive with fossil and nuclear conversion figures. Photovoltaics are rapidly penetrating the distributed energy markets, and residential photovoltaic systems can be purchased now at Home Depot. Fossil-renewable hybrid energy sources have been proposed as a way to accelerate the market penetration of renewable energies and thus reduce the environmental impacts of fossil fuels. Codes, standards, and deployment barriers are being reevaluated. Advanced nuclear technology concepts could lead to greatly improved nuclear power plants that are inherently safe and offer greatly expanded power and industrial applications. Using the tools of modern biology, such as genomics and metabolic engineering, we are creating new, more efficient ways of converting biomass wastes and energy crops into useful products. Biorefineries, the direct analogs of petroleum refineries, will be developed to produce biofuels, biopower, and commercial chemical products--all derived from biomass rather than fossil fuels.

In the transportation sector, a new generation of hybrid electric vehicles is emerging that provides safety, comfort, and performance, all at greater efficiencies. Cleaner fuels are being developed from both fossil fuels and homegrown renewable sources. In the next decade, electric-drive vehicles powered by clean-burning "engines," such as fuel cells, could become an integral part of the power-grid operation by functioning as distributed energy resources when "parked" near buildings.

In the buildings sector, electrochromic windows that can be darkened or lightened to control heat from the sun, desiccant-based dehumidification systems that reduce cooling loads, and solar cells integrated into the roof and windows will all help reduce energy demand in buildings. Improvements can be taken a step further with a whole-building design. Eventually, we could have "zero energy buildings" that produce the equivalent amount of the energy they use.

In the industrial sector, we are developing more energy efficient ways of manufacturing and recycling primary metals, such as aluminum and steel. Through combined heat and power (using heat for both space heating and even space cooling), we can realize further gains in fuel efficiency. The result will be a significant improvement in energy efficiency and reduced environmental impacts.

Hydrogen energy could play an important role in all of these sectors, and many energy experts think hydrogen will be the hallmark of our energy destination. In public-private partnerships involving industry, national laboratories, and universities, we are developing technologies for producing, delivering, storing, and using hydrogen. Early hydrogen production will come mostly from fossil fuels, but we are making progress in producing hydrogen from sustainable sources, such as biomass and solar energy. Crosscutting hydrogen technologies will eventually blur the lines between the electricity, natural gas, and transportation industries and will require an integrated energy strategy.

Commitment to Success
Having defined a destination and charted a strategy, we must also make a commitment to success. In this, we should be guided by four principles:

  • constancy of purpose to avoid the delays and setbacks caused by changes in the objectives and rules for R&D programs
  • recognition that we will need more than one energy solution; we must set performance goals and begin working on as many of them as possible, with ongoing reevaluations of their progress toward meeting our national vision and goals
  • consistency of R&D funding, including making midcourse corrections based on the achievement of goals rather than on short-term political or economic considerations
  • proactive provision of solutions for developing countries before they become overly dependent on the type of rigid system we have today
If we stay the course, public policy and science and engineering will pave the way for markets to embrace clean, secure, reliable energy technologies. This candle will last the night!
About the Author:Richard H. Truly is a member of the NAE and director of the National Renewable Energy Laboratory. This article is based on a presentation given at the Technical Session of the NAE Annual Meeting in October 20.