Can We Research to Meet the Energy Needs of the Future?

Balancing the energy needs of humanity and the environmental impact manufacturing that energy will have is one of the biggest challenges of our time. Immense innovation over the last one hundred years has brought forth the carbon-based electricity we use today, natural gas and petroleum generators, and nuclear power. Yet more innovation is needed to meet the needs of the future as the current technologies are simply not up to the task of generating enough energy safely.

According to the American Energy Information Administration (EIA) and to the International Energy Agency (IEA), the world-wide energy consumption will on average continue to increase by 2% per year. (1)
A yearly increase by 2% leads to a doubling of the energy consumption approximately every 35 years. This means the world-wide energy consumption is predicted to be twice as high in the year 2045 as compared to today. In order to maintain the level of energy output significant research must be done in the energy filed in order to meet these demands.

In November of 2011 the Energy Technology Innovation Policy research group, at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs published an article entitled “Transforming U.S. Energy Innovation.” (2) This article lists five main thing that eh U.S. Government should do to. In this Brief the authors list five ways that the U.S. Government can help innovation:

1) The U.S. government should dramatically expand its investment in energy RD&D, focused on a broad portfolio of different energy technologies and stages of innovation; 2) The U.S. federal government should implement policies that create market incentives to develop and deploy new energy technologies, including policies that have the effect of creating a substantial price on carbon emissions, and sector-specific policies to overcome other market failures; 3) The U.S. government should take a strategic approach to working with the private sector on energy innovation, expanding incentives for private sector energy innovation, and focusing on the particular strategies likely to work best in each case; 4) The U.S. government should strengthen its energy innovation institutions, particularly the national laboratories, by giving them clear missions and direction; considerable management authority and flexibility with clear accountability for results; stable funding; a culture willing to invest in high-risk, high-payoff projects; and opportunities to lend their insights to the design of the policies and approaches they are helping to implement, including public-private partnerships; and 5) The U.S. government should undertake a strategic approach to energy RD&D cooperation with other countries, to leverage the knowledge, resources, and opportunities available around the world, incorporating both top-down strategic priorities and investment in new ideas arising from the bottom-up. (3)

Unfortunately there does not seem to be any coherent energy policy in the U.S. today. (4) The federal government, state governments, and local municipalities all have a say in their own energy policy with, at times, conflicting goals. Without a cohesive strategy, coordinated by a single office or person, most of these admirable goals listed by the Belfer group will not be met. It will be difficult for the U.S. Government to expand its research budget if there is no way to direct the funding to the proper sources, thus failing to meet goals one and four. Without the centralization a single office will provide, goals and two, three and five three are not realistically achievable. The private sectors will be looking out for their present interests and any breakthrough they develop will be kept secret to maximize their profits instead of sharing it. The same could be said for research battles between countries. A central office overseeing research could ensure that the private sectors, and even countries, share research for the benefit of all.

While no one potential source of energy should be left undiscovered, funding all research in the hope that something will happen is equally foolish. Coordinated goals, efforts, and, most importantly, direction are needed to ensure that we can perform the research needed to efficiently, effectively, and safely produce the energy we will need without damaging the environment.

 

(1) EIA, System for Analysis of Global Markets (2006, 2007)

(2) http://belfercenter.ksg.harvard.edu/publication/21528/

(3) http://belfercenter.ksg.harvard.edu/publication/21527/transforming_us_energy_innovation.html?breadcrumb=%2Fproject%2F10%2Fenergy_technology_innovation_policy

(4) http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Energy_policy_of_the_United_States

 

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