A Blueprint for Energy Security in the 21st Century

By Spencer Abraham, United States Secretary of Energy

In nearly a year serving as the United States Secretary of Energy, one thing that has become clear to me is that the future of energy for this country, and indeed for the world, increasingly will rest with our nation's up-and-coming scientists and engineers. The next generation of scientific minds is poised to develop technologies enabling us to secure an abundant supply of cheap, safe, and environmentally responsible energy.

The question of just how to achieve such a future was put to the Bush Administration in our first days. Gas prices hovered near $2 per gallon in many parts of the country, and California was besieged by an electricity crisis threatening rolling blackouts throughout the state.

Among the first tasks the Administration vowed to undertake was to formulate a national energy policy. This was no small matter, as America had gone without a coherent energy policy for years, and the nation faced (and still faces) serious energy challenges. We spent several months of intense study looking at various aspects of our nation's energy system, identifying problems and figuring out ways to solve them. In May, President George W. Bush announced the Administration's National Energy Plan, a blueprint for energy security in the 21st century.

Our plan identifies several major challenges, each of which will require the technical expertise of our nation's best scientific minds in order to be met.

First, our plan addresses our nation's growing and dangerous dependency on a single, depletable source of electricity--natural gas--by paving the way for a more desirable balance among many sources of energy. We will look to renewable energies such as biomass and geothermal, as well as to more traditional sources such as clean coal and nuclear power. By using technology to increase the efficiency of those sources, we can get more energy and more economic productivity with less impact on our environment and on our communities.

Second, our plan moves away from the traditional (and, frankly, unworkable) focus on conservation through government mandates. Instead, it promotes energy efficiency and conservation by making intelligent use of new technologies such as the Internet that give consumers and energy providers greater choice.

Third, our plan addresses the fact that our heavy reliance on fossil fuels leaves us increasingly dependent on foreign sources for oil and gas. Our plan pursues diversification of our foreign sources of energy, as well as environmentally responsible domestic production.

Fourth, our plan calls for revamping our nation's energy infrastructure--the transmission lines and pipelines that move electricity, gas, and oil--by employing new technologies that allow us to send more and more energy over smaller and smaller lines.

Finally, our plan addresses the challenges we face in research and development by increasing the movement of mature technologies (solar, wind, and geothermal energy, for instance) to the market while we concentrate more resources on promising technologies that represent the next wave.

What is obvious is that the promise of technology undergirds the central elements of our plan. In almost every instance, President Bush's National Energy Plan recognizes--indeed, it embraces--the potential of high technology. The future that we seek is one that will be defined by exciting scientific developments and technological wonders. It will be built by many of the students currently working in the sciences at the nation's premier research universities. As scientists, thinkers, engineers, and entrepreneurs, they will play a big role solving the riddles of our present energy challenges and shaping our future. Through their efforts, not only will we ensure abundant and affordable energy for the 21st century, we will change the way we think about energy.

When people look back 50 or 100 years from now at the energy challenges we face today--dependence on foreign sources, production versus environmental protection, an overstressed energy delivery system--they will wonder what all the fuss was about. That is because they will be living, so far as energy is concerned, in a different world.

The world we see is indeed a different one, a more optimistic one, a world in which the debates of today are rendered largely irrelevant by a host of exciting new developments. In fact, I wouldn't be surprised if a century from now the ways in which we currently think about energy--in terms of pollutant-producing fossil fuels and large, centralized, gas-fired power plants--will be regarded as quaint and old-fashioned as the wood-fire Franklin stove seems to us today. We foresee a world of cleaner, smaller, and more efficient units of power generation. We foresee more individual choice, more competition, and a closer approximation of a true market for energy in America and around the world. And we foresee increased reliability, increased supply, and lower prices.

To achieve our vision of greater individual choice, our plan embraces exploring the idea of distributed energy. Distributed energy looks beyond large power plants toward smaller sources of power, such as microturbines. These will be so small, yet so powerful, that many homes and businesses will be able to supply all their own energy--and even sell the surplus back into the grid. To accomplish this we'll need to refine today's technology. We'll need electronic controls, switch gears, inverters, and rectifiers that can give industrial, commercial, and residential users some measure of independence from the central grid.

But to achieve the full scope of our vision of cleaner, smaller, and more efficient sources of energy, we must look over the horizon--beyond fossil fuels--to hydrogen or to other forms of power as yet undreamed of. We already know that fuel cells, which can run on hydrogen or traditional fuels that convert to hydrogen, offer many advantages. They may serve as the backbone of this distributed energy network. A small fuel cell in one's basement, producing no carbon dioxide and emitting nothing but water, might someday be the only thing needed to power an entire household. Earlier this year, I glimpsed the future of fuel cells at the Department of Energy's (DOE's) Argonne National Laboratory in Illinois. They are getting smaller, more powerful, and more useful, virtually every day. In just the past 4 years, they've reduced the fuel processing system from the size of a minivan to the size of the driver's seat in a minivan. And further advances are just over the horizon.

For centuries we have lived and prospered in a carbon-based economy. Fossil fuels have powered ships, warmed homes, driven automobiles, and fired the revolution in flight. They have also powered the revolution in information technology. Energy sources such as coal and oil once overcame an economy based on horsepower. I wouldn't be surprised if one day our carbon-based economy passes from the scene to be replaced, perhaps, by hydrogen. Think about that: A world that does not rely on coal or gas or oil for power. A world where arguments and policy debates about air pollution and smog and environmental concerns are largely things read about in history books. That is quite a prediction. It relies on a vision of a better future. And it relies to a large degree on the creativity and ingenuity of tomorrow's scientists and engineers.

But I am confident that they will be able to construct that future. It is why I strongly support DOE labs, where so much cutting-edge science is done. It is why I strongly support the department's intensive R&D efforts. And it is why I strongly support DOE's outreach efforts to attract graduates of the nation's top research universities.

As the President's Energy Plan makes clear, we are confronted with quite a few challenges. But with challenge comes opportunity. That is why I am not surprised that so many promising scientists are choosing to come to the Department of Energy. And it is why I am not surprised that we will indeed be able to build that bold future where energy is safe and abundant and affordable for all.

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