Actions to Deploy Key Technologies Over the Next Decade Will Determine Energy Future

Initiating deployment of these technologies is urgent; actions taken -- or not taken -- between now and 2020 to develop and demonstrate several key technologies will largely determine the nation's energy options for many decades to come.

by / July 28, 2009

With a sustained national commitment, the United States could obtain substantial energy-efficiency improvements, new sources of energy, and reductions in greenhouse gas emissions through the accelerated deployment of existing and emerging energy technologies, according to America's Energy Future: Technology and Transformation, the capstone report of the America's Energy Future project of the National Research Council, the operating arm of the National Academy of Sciences and National Academy of Engineering.

Initiating deployment of these technologies is urgent; actions taken -- or not taken -- between now and 2020 to develop and demonstrate several key technologies will largely determine the nation's energy options for many decades to come.

Deploying existing energy-efficiency technologies is a near-term and low-cost way to reduce U.S. energy demand, the report says. Fully deploying these technologies in buildings alone could save enough power to eliminate the need for new electricity generating plants to meet growing U.S. demand. However, some new plants would likely still be needed to address regional supply imbalances, replace obsolete technology, or present more environmentally friendly sources of electricity. Deployment of efficiency technologies in the building, industrial, and transportation sectors could reduce projected U.S. energy use by 15 percent in 2020 and by 30 percent in 2030. Even greater energy savings would be possible with more aggressive policies and incentives.

The United States has many promising options for obtaining new sources of electricity over the next two to three decades, especially if carbon capture and storage and evolutionary nuclear technologies can be deployed at an adequate scale. However, according to the report, the deployment of these new technologies is very likely to result in higher consumer prices for electricity. In addition, the nation's electrical grid will require expansion and modernization to enhance its reliability and security, accommodate changes in load growth and electricity demand, and to enable the deployment of new energy efficiency and supply technologies, especially intermittent wind and solar energy.

In the transportation sector, petroleum will continue to be an indispensable fuel in the coming decades, but maintaining current rates of domestic petroleum production (about 5.1 million barrels per day in 2008) will be challenging. There are limited options for replacing petroleum or reducing petroleum use before 2020, but there are more substantial long-term options that could begin to make significant contributions by 2030 or 2035. Reductions in petroleum use could be obtained through increased vehicle efficiency, production of alternative liuid fuels such as cellulosic ethanol or coal-and-biomass fuels, and expanding deployment of battery electric and hydrogen fuel-cell vehicles.

Substantial reductions in greenhouse gas emissions from the electricity and transportation sectors are achievable over the next two to three decades, the report says. In both cases, adopting a portfolio approach -- deploying a variety of alternative technologies aimed at reducing emissions -- would be necessary. For the electricity sector, enabling this portfolio approach will require demonstrating, within the next decade, that carbon capture and storage technologies are technically and commercially viable in both new and existing power plants and in liquid fuels production. It will also be necessary to demonstrate the commercial viability of evolutionary nuclear plants.

To begin accelerated deployments of new energy technologies by 2020, and to ensure that innovative ideas continue to be explored, the public and private sectors will need extensive research development and demonstration over the next decade. The report notes that a broad portfolio approach, supporting basic research through the demonstration stage, will likely be more effective than targeted efforts aimed at identifying technology winners and losers. At the demonstration stage, high-priority technologies include carbon capture and storage, evolutionary nuclear technologies, cellulosic ethanol, and advanced light-duty vehicles. The more long-term research and development needs include new technologies for producing liquid fuels from renewable resources, advanced batteries and fuel cells, large-scale electricity storage, enhanced geothermal power, and advanced solar photovoltaic technologies.

In addition, because many barriers exist that could delay or prevent technology deployment, the report recommends that sustained policy and regulatory actions, as well as other forms of incentives, be employed to drive adoption.

Copies of the summary edition of America's Energy Future: Technology and Transformation are available from the National Academies Press or on the Internet at