Last week, I was lucky enough to attend the Institute for Energy Efficiency’s “Santa Barbara Summit on Energy Efficiency.” One of the highlights of the two-day event included the keynote address by Bill Brinkman, Director for the Office of Science at the US DOE. Brinkman started out his talk by raising the stakes on the present (and future) of energy efficiency technologies and renewable energy, “Two years ago, I said we needed to reach a level of research and development we haven’t seen since the height of the Space Race. This is our generation’s Sputnik moment.”
Brinkman went on to discuss President Obama’s blueprint for a secure energy future, highlighting a set of specific goals the administration and the DOE hope to meet in the next couple of decades. Those goals include driving improved energy efficiency in homes and commercial buildings through various programs while also generating 80% of our electricity from clean energy by 2035.
Because transportation lays claim to a significant portion of our energy resources, Brinkman also outline the ways in which the DOE hopes to shift the country away from oil and gas towards cleaner—and more secure—fuel sources. Along those lines, the DOE plans to help in the construction of four commercial biofuel plants in the next two years. Additionally, the DOE now requires that all government purchased vehicles be either hybrids or plugs-ins. Future goals for the agency include reducing the amount of imported oil by 33% by 2025, raising CAFE standards to 42 mpg for cars and 26 mpg for trucks by 2016, and deploying one million plug-in electric vehicles by 2015.
Even with these goals and mandates in place, Brinkman emphasized that the problem of expense must be addressed. “We have the solutions,” he said, “but the cost can be prohibitive.”
Research and development will play a significant role in reducing the high cost of energy efficiency, said Brinkman. At the DOE’s Office of Science—which operates under the slogan “Science to Meet the Nation’s Challenges Today and into the 21st Century”—45% of federal support of basic research in the physical sciences has spawned over 27,000 PhDs, graduate and undergraduates, and supported that has lead to over 100 Nobel Prizes. The DOE’s Office of Science also funds 46 Energy Frontier Research Centers (EFRC)—including UCSB’s Center for Energy Efficient Materials—that focus on everything from materials by design to modeling and simulation to biosystems and design. These EFRCs essentially work on developing applications of 21st century science to address longstanding barriers in energy efficiency and launch an era of predictive modeling that has changed the paradigm of materials. As Brinkman explained, the importance of these EFRCs is the how they allow for “discovery from serendipity to rational design.”
“Discovery of new materials has been the engine driving science frontiers,” added Brinkman.
One EFRC area boasted some of the most exciting innovations that could directly impact our energy use and power supply: bioenergy production. By exploring the relationship between biomass, photosynthesis and microbes, a new type of metabolic engineering could be created for enhanced biofuels. Additional research has also focused on genetic manipulation of lignin in order to improve biofuel production for switchgrass instead of the more problematic ethanol.
This focus on biofuels is not insignificant when you look at the numbers:
* Global Biofuel utilization: 24 billion gallons of biofuels consumed in 2009 (sugarcane-based—brazil, starch-based, US, biodiesel—soybean in US and brazil, rapeseed in Europe)
* US biofuels production in 2010: 13 billion gallons of starch-based, 310 million gallons of soybean-based
* Over $1 billion in DOE investments in 29 IBR projects (Integrated Biorefineries)—these projects represent up to 170 million gallons in planned capacity of biofuels and products by 2014, with an industry cost share of $2.
So what do you think? If we liken our current (and future) energy needs and the challenges that we face—including peak oil, climate change, and energy security and reliability—to the space race, can we expect the same results? Are we doing enough to facilitate the research and development essential to a cleaner energy future? And will it be possible to avoid tunnel vision—focusing only on the scientific challenge at hand—so that these new innovations and discoveries can be transformed into real world solutions for our real world problems?