DOE-BES Report Calls for More R&D Funding

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Publication date: 
9 February 2009


A report from the Basic Energy Sciences Advisory Committee’s Subcommittee on Facing Our Energy Challenges in a New Era of Science calls for additional resources to confront energy, climate change, and economic challenges. “New Science for a Secure and Sustainable Energy Future” (here) argues that the Department of Energy’s (DOE) Office of Basic Energy Sciences (BES) can provide “paradigm-changing breakthroughs: new ideas that ‘change the rules of the game.’”

The report cites the nation’s deepening energy/environment/economic crises as opportunities for revolutionary energy research gains. The U.S. “exceeds domestic production capacity by the equivalent of 16 million barrels of oil per day.” In fact, “this deficit has nearly tripled since 1970.” By 2030, U.S. demand for oil is expected to increase 15 percent. While fossil fuels “comprise 85% of the U.S. national energy supply,” to sustain our environment the U.S. “must reduce its emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases that accelerate climate change.” At recent peak prices, imported energy costs approximately $700 billion per year.

According to the BES Subcommittee report, “existing energy approaches- even with improvements from advanced engineering and improved technology based on known concepts- will not be enough to secure our energy future.” “Instead,” the report says “meeting the challenge will require new technology for producing, storing and using energy with performance levels far beyond what is now possible.” Three key goals must be achieved to move forward, making fuels from sunlight, generating electricity without carbon emissions, and revolutionizing energy efficiency and use.

On February 3 John Hemminger of University of California – Irvine, George Crabtree of the University of Chicago and Marc Kastner of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology briefed House Science and Technology Subcommittee on Energy and Environment Chairman Brian Baird (D-WA) and Hill staff on the report.

Kastner explained that federal spending on energy research and development is well below the 1980 level, at two percent of total U.S. research and development investment in 2005, down from ten percent 15 years prior. At the same time, private research and development has decreased, with the exception of recent venture capital investments. The International Energy Agency (IEA) recently estimated that stabilizing carbon dioxide emissions at current levels by 2050 requires $400 billion annually in worldwide research and development implementation. Reducing emissions to 50 percent below 2005 levels will cost $1.1 trillion annually.

Speakers discussed important research that requires significant investments in the areas of carbon sequestration, photovoltaics, and batteries. Crabtree also made an argument for updating the nation’s electrical grid. By 2030 U.S. demand for electricity is expected to grow by 50 percent, and 100 percent worldwide. Regarding efficiency, eight to ten percent of energy is lost in the grid, a figure equivalent of 40 power plants. Crabtree also made an argument for breaking the urban power bottleneck by expanding research in high temperature superconductivity. In terms of capacity (five times in same cross sectional size), reliability (self-healing power control), and efficiency (10-100 times better than copper), a high temperature superconducting system is superior to the current infrastructure. Unfortunately, long distance superconducting transmission requires a breakthrough in material research, and is “not cost competitive with copper by a factor of ten.”

The speakers ultimately offered four recommendations to better position BES to make substantial gains in energy research: support dream teams of the best scientists working with the best tools; fund BES Energy Frontier Research Centers where the aforementioned mentioned teams will work; launch an aggressive program to recruit and train the best and brightest students and early career scientists; and fund a massive and sustained investment in basic energy science.