PCAST Hears Update on First-Ever Quadrennial Energy Review

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Publication date: 
2 June 2015

The President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST) held a meeting on May 15 at the National Academy of Sciences to examine three major topics: the first-ever Quadrennial Energy Review (QER), the Administration’s new Precision Medicine Initiative, and Reimagining Capitalism: Business and Big Problems.  This FYI will report on the part of the meeting that covered the QER, presented by Secretary of Energy Ernest Moniz and Jonathan Pershing, Principal Deputy Director of the Department of Energy Office of Energy Policy and Systems Analysis. PCAST is co-chaired by John Holdren, Assistant to the President for Science and Technology and Director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, and Eric Lander, President and Director of the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard. 

The QER was originally envisioned in a PCAST report in the fall of 2010, and President Obama officially launched the initiative with the 2013 release of his President’s Climate Action Plan.   In a January 2014 memo, the President justified the need for a QER, directed its undertaking, and called for “a comprehensive and integrated energy strategy resulting from interagency dialogue and active engagement of external stakeholders.”  Since then, 22 federal agencies have been engaged in the effort, with the bulk of the analytical effort completed by the DOE Office of Energy Policy and Systems Analysis.

This first-year QER report, released in April of this year, focuses on the threats, risks, and opportunities for U.S. energy and climate security, and proposes major policy recommendations and investments to replace, expand, and modernize energy infrastructure.  The overall message of the 347-page report is that the nation must focus on key areas for modernizing and improving our nation’s energy infrastructure:  “Building a resilient, reliable, safe, and secure energy infrastructure is a national priority and vital to American competitiveness, jobs, energy security, and a clean energy future.
Moniz presented the QER as having four major thematic buckets, each connected to a set of policy recommendations: 

  1. Resilience against risks to energy infrastructure, such as extreme weather and other natural disasters;
  2. Modernizing the electric grid and upgrading it to the smart grid of the future;
  3. Improving shared infrastructure, which delivers not only energy but also other commodities (i.e. inland waterways, rail, docks, etc.); and
  4. Modernizing energy security infrastructures. 

The Secretary also mentioned that the report recommends the integration of North American energy markets, especially in order to better connect Mexico’s energy systems to ours.

The QER tackles the rapid and transformational changes taking place in the U.S. energy system, including increasing energy production, technology advances, policy developments, and shifts in energy security.  Said Moniz: “We are in a period over the last decade or so of quite remarkable changes in the energy system, everything from…the production of hydrocarbons, [which] has been a tremendous economic boom and also…quite stressed much of our energy infrastructure….  On the opportunity side, we also know that we have seen tremendous technology developments….  One of the obvious ones there is the precipitous drop in the costs of a number of clean technologies: on-shore wind, solar, LEDs, batteries.  Just in a period of five to ten years, we have seen cost reductions in some cases by multiples.” 

At the same time, Moniz and Holdren emphasized that reshaping the U.S. energy landscape is a vast undertaking that will take decades, due to the inertia that is built into the system.  Said Holdren: “I have found over the years that the single most misunderstood aspect of the energy situation is that people imagine if you decide today you want a different energy system tomorrow you can change it overnight, and in fact you cannot.  My current estimate of the capital investment in the world's energy system, that is all of the power plants, transmission lines, pipelines, rigs and so forth is about $25 trillion, and that $25 trillion investment turns over with a characteristic time of 30 to 40 years, the average lifetime of major energy facilities. And that means basically if you want the energy system in 2050 to look very different than it looks today, you better start changing it now.

Moniz indicated that the QER has support from key committee leadership in Congress, who he said are interested in this kind of information to help make better policy decisions.  Congress is currently considering energy infrastructure legislation, and both House and Senate committees have held hearings in recent months on the QER, respectively the House Energy and Power Subcommittee and the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee.

In the question and answer period, a number of the members of PCAST asked questions related to the timescales and levels of robustness used in QER analyses.  Maxine Savitz, Vice President of the National Academy of Engineering, asked why projections made in the QER only went out to 2030, when a 50-year timescale is often used in long-term planning for energy infrastructure.  Moniz responded that some longer term analyses were completed for this report but that the QER team is strongly considering more long term focus for future installments.  William Press asked how the QER team makes its models robust enough to handle unexpected shocks to the energy system, for example oil shocks, natural disasters such as hurricanes, or the quick rise of hydraulic fracturing, in its modeling.  Moniz responded that “the best that we have got to offer at the moment has been scenario based modeling with a whole variety of different assumptions.

In addition to overseeing the QER, PCAST also oversees the Quadrennial Technology Review (QTR).  PCAST has called for a second installment of the QTR, which will look across the board at energy science and technology and similarly engage the Department of Energy.   That report is expected to be released in June of this year.

The next PCAST meeting is scheduled for July 14; an agenda has not been released.

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