DOE will focus more of its R&D on electric vehicles, less on clean-energy generation
The US Department of Energy has conducted a quadrennial review of the technology programs run by DOE's offices of energy efficiency and renewable energy, fossil energy, and nuclear energy. The review's findings are being used in the preparation of DOE's budget proposal for fiscal year 2013.
October 17, 2011Published: October 17, 2011
The Department of Energy will refocus its energy R&D portfolio, increasing the proportion of resources devoted to improving transportation technologies relative to those devoted to improving the energy efficiency of buildings, industry, and the electrical grid. In a first-of-a-kind strategic plan, DOE concluded that reducing petroleum imports will not only produce the greatest benefits for US economic and national security but also address climate change issues. Although improving efficiency in the non-transportation energy sector is necessary as well, the US would remain vulnerable to oil imports, since little petroleum is used in electricity generation.
The biggest savings in oil consumption in the near term will result from improving the efficiency of internal combustion engines, reducing vehicle weight, and improving vehicle aerodynamics. With the existing petroleum and electricity infrastructure, electrification of cars and light trucks offers the best opportunity for the US to lower its dependence on foreign oil. Hybrid and electric vehicles are a "sweet spot" for DOE investments in precompetitive R&D, said DOE undersecretary for science Steven Koonin, thanks to the agency's expertise in advanced batteries, motors, and power electronics. All those technologies are needed for "a graceful transition from gasoline to hybrid to all electric," he said. For marine, air transport, and heavy-duty vehicles, where electrification isn't a viable option, biofuels that are compatible with the existing petroleum infrastructure represent the best alternative to oil, the review said.
Quadrennial Technology Review
The results of the DOE exercise, called the Quadrennial Technology Review, are being used in the preparation of DOE's budget proposal for fiscal year 2013. To be made public in February 2012, the budget proposal will begin to rebalance DOE's current energy R&D investments. But the QTR itself contains no funding recommendations. Currently, about three-quarters of that portfolio is spent on the stationary energy sector, and about three-quarters of the stationary energy resources are devoted to improving electricity generation. The QTR, which was released on 27 September, concluded that a greater fraction of the stationary energy sector effort should go to developing technologies needed for modernizing the electricity transmission and distribution grid and for improving the energy efficiency of buildings and industrial processes. Plenty of "headroom" exists for data, systems analyses, and new products and processes in the stationary energy sector, Koonin said.
The QTR assesses only the energy technology programs run by DOE's energy efficiency and renewable energy, fossil energy, and nuclear energy offices. The Office of Science, which funds most of the non-weapons fundamental research at the agency, was not included in the QTR, although many of its programs also are devoted to clean energy.
More generally, the report states, "We found that too much effort in the Department is devoted to research on technologies that are multiple generations away from practical use at the expense of analyses, modeling and simulation, or other highly relevant fundamental engineering research activities that could influence the private sector in the nearer term."
Koonin, a former head of R&D at BP, cautioned that the transition from petroleum will occur gradually. But he noted that steep cuts in oil usage could be made using currently available technologies. If everyone commuted in plug-in hybrid vehicles capable of operating 40 miles on batteries alone, gasoline demand could be cut by two-thirds, he noted. The department aims to cut the cost of advanced batteries in half within five to six years, he added.
Energy Secretary Steven Chu said the DOE report is a first step toward a multiagency QTR that "could dramatically improve the integration and effectiveness of the government's energy policy."
The QTR also found that DOE does not adequately take into account how consumers interact with energy, or how industry makes decisions about technologies. Thus the report calls for an improved understanding of social science to become a component of its technology programs.
DOE's energy efficiency and renewable energy (EERE) R&D programs were funded at roughly $2 billion in FY 2011 (excluding the $270 million that goes to low-income weatherization and intergovernmental activities). That was the same as in FY 2010, due to the full-year continuing resolution. DOE requested $2.8 billion (excluding weatherization) in FY 2012. The agency also funded $121 million in electricity delivery and energy reliability R&D in 2011, and it has requested $193 million in 2012. Nuclear energy R&D received $775 million in FY 2011, and DOE requested $755 million for FY 2012. Finally, fossil-energy R&D was funded at $660 million in FY 2011, and the FY 2012 request is $453 million.
The Obama administration's 2012 budget request predated the debt ceiling agreement, which ordered trillions of dollars of cuts in federal programs over the coming decade. As a result, the increases requested for EERE and electricity delivery are unlikely to be approved.