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DOE Plan Would Boost Technology Spending on Transportation

The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) today unveiled the results of a sweeping review designed to make the department's efforts to develop better energy technologies more coherent and productive. The first-ever Quadrennial Technology Review (QTR) also offered a preview for one likely Obama Administration budget priority for 2013: Investing a larger share of the DOE's $3 billion energy technology R&D budget in electric car development.

The review suggests that DOE's current spending on technology R&D is "a bit unbalanced," said DOE Under Secretary for Science Steven Koonin, who walked through the new report at a briefing held at the American Association for the Advancement of Science (publisher of Science) in Washington, D.C. The report, he said, "has influenced the thinking" for DOE's fiscal year 2013 budget request, which will be presented to Congress in February.

Publication of the QTR caps a 6-month effort to respond to a recommendation from the President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology. That White House body recommended the report—modeled on similar quadrennial reviews performed by the Defense and State departments—as a way to better coordinate and set priorities for energy R&D. In developing the report, DOE staff members ordered up intensive reviews of 17 major technologies with the potential to change how energy is produced or used, and held a series of public meetings to gather input from industry, academia, and the public.

The result, says Energy Secretary Steven Chu, are recommendations that will enable DOE "to take a longer view" in setting its R&D priorities, recognizing that "technology development doesn't occur in 2- or 4-year cycles."

To that end, the QTR concludes that DOE is currently devoting too much effort to "technologies that are multiple generations away from practical use," and not enough to "research activities that could influence the private sector in the nearer term." It also calls for the department to focus its efforts on developing technologies that could have "consequential" impacts on U.S. energy use within 5 to 15 years.

One practical result of such advice, Koonin said, is likely to be a shift away from investments in "stationary" energy technologies—such as power plants, the electricity grid, and building efficiency improvements—and toward transport technologies, such as electric cars and biofuels. Currently, DOE allocates about 74% of its $3 billion in technology spending to stationary sources, and just 26% to transport, Koonin said. That "is not optimally balanced."

Koonin would not, however, identify which programs might grow—and which might get the ax. The report, however, says DOE should "devote its greatest effort" in the transport sector "to electrification of the light-duty" automotive fleet, meaning light cars and trucks.

Among other recommendations, the QTR identifies the importance of using social science to understand which technologies people—and companies—are likely to adopt. Researchers, the QTR notes, "have recognized the importance of social barriers in deploying technologies, but much remains unknown."