America Needs Large-Scale Energy Experiments, Academy Says

If the most important concerns for property are location, location, location, the top issues for energy are scale, scale, scale. The United States has a vast demand for energy—85% of it satisfied by fossil fuels, posing risks for the environment, national security, and the economy. But the sheer size of the energy sector makes it like an ocean liner: hard to change direction. That is why, according to a new report out today from the National Research Council, the United States can’t rely on just one rudder to make a course correction. Instead, it’s imperative that the country promote a wide portfolio of new energy technologies, ranging from energy efficient buildings and electric cars to sequestering carbon and new nuclear plants.

As part of that effort, the report’s authors argue for an array of large-scale demonstration projects on new energy technologies, such as capturing and sequestering carbon emissions from coal-fired electric plants, beginning as soon as possible. “The urgency of getting started on these demonstrations to clarify future deployment options cannot be overstated,” the report says.

Among the low hanging fruit, the report argues that improvements in energy efficiency, particularly in buildings and vehicles, could offset all the projected increases in U.S. energy use through 2030. But other sectors won’t be so easily tamed. In efforts to replace petroleum in vehicles, the report’s authors argue that there will be few widely-available options until 2020. After that, they argue, new technologies to convert coal and biomass to liquid fuels and improved electric cars could begin to make significant inroads.

But for such progress to occur, U.S. policy makers need to take two big steps they’ve been unable to accomplish thus far. First, they need to adopt and sustain a far-reaching energy policy. As Harold Shapiro, president emeritus and a retired professor of economics and public affairs at Princeton University and the study’s chair, puts it in the preface of the report (America’s Energy Future: Technology and Transformation), the new strategy must span decades: "Long-term problems require long-term solutions, and only significant, deliberate, stable, integrated, consistent, and sustained actions will move us to a more secure and sustainable energy system.” Second, the country needs to support R&D on a wide swath of new energy technologies even if some of them might not work out. Pulling those off will likely be a massive undertaking in themselves.