4 Bold—and Realistic—Plans to Fix Our Energy System

Eight leading thinkers offer visions of how to move from a history of squandering resources to a cleaner, more efficient, and more abundant energy supply.


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When the colonists of Virginia depleted their cropland, they relocated westward. When prospectors found gold in the Rockies, they rushed to exploit it without a thought to the environment. There is no Wild West anymore. As it becomes increasingly clear that our energy supply is finite and unpredictable, the United States must make a clean break from its history of squandering resources. To brainstorm an action plan, DISCOVER teamed up with the National Science Foundation, the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE-USA), and the American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME) to sponsor a series of briefings on Capitol Hill. Eight leading thinkers offered visions of how to make our energy supply cleaner, more efficient, and more abundant (for video, check out the event homepage). Here is their expert analysis.


Plan of Action Make our economy more productive by using energy more intelligently. A stunning 57 percent of our energy ends up wasted, according to James D. McCalley, electrical and computer engineer at Iowa State University. Investing in energy efficiency would be equivalent to tapping an entirely new source of energy. “If you green the electrical system and then electrify the transportation system, you also have a very good start to the solution to our global warming problems,” McCalley says.

The Science Residential and commercial energy consumption accounts for 72 percent of all electricity and 13 percent of all fossil fuels consumed in this country, says Vivian Loftness, an architect at Carnegie Mellon University. That means buildings offer huge potential for energy savings. Natural daylight can replace 30 to 60 percent of our current energy consumption for lighting, natural ventilation can reduce the energy used for air-conditioning by 20 to 40 percent, and better use of natural shading could cut another 10 percent. Passive solar heating eliminates 20 to 40 percent of heating costs.

“Conservation is a new supply. As long as it’s relegated to the far end of the equation, we’re never going to get to where we need to go,” Loftness says. More stringent energy regulations could save 50 to 75 percent of the cost of running appliances and equipment. Some urban planning, modest transportation initiatives, and better application of off-the-shelf technologies could also drastically cut fuel use. For instance, refrigerators today consume about 75 percent less energy than they did in 1972 due to federal and state efficiency standards.

The Policy Loftness and others recommend that the federal government encourage efficiency through tax incentives and stricter standards for appliances, vehicles, and buildings to meet the goals of the American Clean Energy and Security Act. That Senate bill sets a goal to reduce emissions by 83 percent from 2005 levels by 2050 and requires electricity suppliers to use renewables and electricity-saving measures for 20 percent of their demand by 2020. According to Lowell Ungar, director of the Alliance to Save Energy in Washington, D.C., stronger building codes that would improve insulation, heating and cooling, and lighting could reduce building energy demand by 6 to 7 percent by 2030. “Buildings use about two-fifths of the energy and are responsible for about two-fifths of the carbon in this country. Building codes are the essential policy tools here,” he says.

The government could also help by promoting consumer education about energy-efficiency options and by broadening the labeling of consumer products to show the energy costs of using such products, as is done now with the EnergyStar program. It should encourage urban infill, in which underused parts of our cities (instead of areas on the fringes) are redeveloped for business and residential use. This would help curtail suburban sprawl and the associated auto miles traveled while also making our cities more compact and walkable.

In 2005, residents of Portland, Oregon—where regulations encourage infill development—emitted 35 percent less carbon dioxide than the average resident of the country’s 100 largest metropolitan areas. Loftness estimates that infill development could cut greenhouse-gas emissions by 240 million metric tons. It could reduce vehicle miles traveled by 30 percent by 2050, other studies have found. Encouraging greater investment in—and use of—mass transit would also help improve efficiency, as would carbon cap-and-trade legislation.

Energy Sources

The breakdown of energy sources in the United States (measured in quadrillion Btu), according to the Energy Information Administration. More than four-fifths of the country’s energy comes from fossil fuels; only one percent comes from geothermal, solar, and wind (GS&W). The energy content of all these sources pales in comparison with the losses due to waste during generation, transmission, and use.


Plan of Action Rebuild our aging, patchwork electrical grid to reduce losses and improve flexibility. Smart electrical grids and energy storage options would allow utilities to operate more efficiently by helping them manage spikes in the demand for electric power.

The Science A better energy delivery and storage system will have far-reaching effects on all forms of energy consumption—from transportation to heating. It would eliminate supply and price volatility, level peak loads, increase reliability, and decouple production from demand, thereby making alternative sources like wind and solar more viable. “Renewable energy sources like wind and solar need storage. We can use the grid to decouple the renewable power production from when we want energy. Storage will level the load,” says Ralph Masiello, innovation director of KEMA, a Massachusetts-based energy consulting company.

He describes how Presidio, Texas, found a solution for its energy problem. The town is located at the very end of a long, thin transmission line. Frequent storms would take out the line, causing power outages. The solution in the past was to temporarily connect Presidio to Mexico’s electrical grid until the problem could be fixed. Now the utility has installed a six-megawatt battery at the substation to deliver electricity to the town during outages.

Meanwhile, McCalley from Iowa State University is developing computer models that project how energy supply and demand will change over the next four decades. That analysis, which he calls “infrastructure investment planning,” looks at possible investment strategies and identifies the optimal plans in terms of cost, environmental impact, and resiliency to disturbances.

The Policy The government should direct funds into initiatives to develop technologies for storing power from traditional and alternative sources on the nation’s grid. Upgrading to high-voltage transmission lines will greatly increase the efficiency of the grid. According to S. Massoud Amin, an electrical and computer engineer at the University of Minnesota, the United States now invests just $4.6 million per gigawatt annually in high-voltage transmission, compared with a $16.5 million investment in England, $12.3 million in Spain, and $22 million in New Zealand. The implications of a smart grid also require study: Who, for instance, would own energy that is put in storage for later use? The battery in Presidio, Masiello says, has proved to be controversial with wind farm developers because the utility buys power from them at night when it is cheap, stores it, and then supplies it to customers during outages, when it is expensive.

Energy Use

The percentage of energy used in the United States by various sectors, according to the Department of Energy and Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. Energy is wasted in every step of the supply chain. For example, light-duty vehicles convert only 20 percent of the fuel they consume into useful energy. Improving the grid will reduce one major cause of energy loss.


Plan of Action Wean the United States off fossil fuels by developing and adopting better alternatives. The obstacles are not just technological. The nation’s leaders will need to take on entrenched interests, particularly in fossil fuels. Petroleum, coal, and natural gas dominate today’s energy system, making up around 84 percent of our nation’s total energy consumption. In comparison, biofuels and other alternative energy sources remain minor players in the overall economy.

The Science Advanced biofuels that are derived from cellulose (such as wood chips or cornstalks) are well along in the labs, but they need substantial investment to bring them to the marketplace. Catalytic fast pyrolysis —a technique that uses catalysts to turn biomass into fuel in a matter of minutes—could be ready in 5 to 10 years with proper funding, says George Huber, a chemical engineer at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. “In my laboratory today, we can synthesize many of the same compounds that are found in petroleum from biomass resources,” he says. “We can take sawdust. We can also take agricultural waste. We can take energy crops, and we can make gasoline.”

Better technologies for splitting water into oxygen and hydrogen fuel could power homes on a few liters of water a day. Splitting just 5.5 liters (about 1.5 gallons) of water would produce about 20 kilowatt-hours of energy, the daily use of a typical American home, says Daniel Nocera, a chemist at MIT. A rooftop array of solar panels measuring 30 meters square, operating at 50 percent efficiency, also could supply the necessary electricity.

The Policy The federal government needs to support, through policy and direct R&D funding, the development and adoption of biofuels, wind farms, solar panels, and hydrogen fuel cells. “We need to let renewable fuels out of the box so they can compete on a level carbon playing field. If you’re going to carbon-score them and compare them on a relative basis, treat petroleum and biofuels alike,” says Brooke Coleman of the New Fuels Alliance. Our national energy policy should also support the standardization of nuclear power plant design, an idea that Energy Secretary Steven Chu has recently endorsed (see “Micro Nukes,” page 38). It is also important to rewrite regulations to help alternative energy producers compete in the risky and volatile energy marketplace. Steps should include the continuation of loan guarantees and cost-sharing programs for building pilot biofuel plants, support for flex-fuel vehicles that can burn both gasoline and biofuels, and R&D incentives from the departments of energy and agriculture. Continuing the $1-per-gallon subsidy for cellulosic ethanol and the renewable fuel standards will also help. Huber also suggests eliminating tariffs on Brazilian ethanol and other foreign biofuels.

Biomass Availability

In 2005, the U.S. departments of agriculture and energy teamed up to project (pdf) the nation’s potential annual supply of biomass (in millions of tons) for energy use. These five sources add up to the equivalent of 4.1 billion barrels of oil, or 58 percent of the country’s annual oil consumption.


Plan of Action Encourage more basic and applied R&D in the United States, and increase the flow of students into science and engineering. Continuing to improve and expand the country’s energy supply will require a pool of talented researchers. A report by the U.S. Power and Energy Engineering Workforce Collaborative estimates (pdf) that almost 1,000 college students graduate each year with an interest in electric-power engineering jobs, and an additional 1,000 students enroll in graduate-level power engineering programs. But over the next five years, electrical utilities alone will require an additional 7,000 power engineers, and factoring in other industries adds another 4,000 new hires.

The Science Amin notes that revamping the energy system will take a tremendous push in applied mathematics, systems science, and supercomputing. Designing and building smart grids in particular will require workers with expertise in sensing, data management, automation, power electronics, and materials science. In alternative energy, Huber sees a need for more research in chemical engineering. In fiscal 2009, the federal government allocated $147 billion, or 4 percent of total spending, for research and development. And only 0.2 percent of that R&D funding went to green building; all of energy, general science, natural resources, and environmental research totaled 8 percent. The challenge of satisfying America’s future energy needs is staggering—but essential to our national security. “In the next 40 years, we’re going to need 16 terawatts of power,” Nocera says. “A typical power plant puts out 1 gigawatt. If I want 8 terawatts from nuclear, say, you’re going to have to build a new nuclear power plant every 1.4 days for the next 40 years. That gives you a feeling of the scale of where we’re headed.”

The Policy Industry spending on R&D is at a 30-year low. Between 1995 and 2000, U.S. electrical utilities invested less than 0.3 percent of sales in R&D, and from 2003 to 2006 that number dropped to 0.17 percent. “The pet food industry spends more in pet food research than we do in energy technology research,” Amin says. The Department of Energy’s spending on energy technology has also declined, from $6 billion in 1978 to $1.8 billion in 2004. Loftness argues that the government must respond with incentives, such as funding relevant Ph.D. programs; Amin hopes to see more federal and private investment in R&D for high-voltage transmission and energy technology. “If the federal system does not say that conservation, renewables, and energy innovation are where we want our future Ph.D.s to be and put money behind it, we’re not going to see the wealth of innovation and accomplishment we want to see,” Loftness says.

Federal R&D Budget


Lowell Ungar, director, Alliance to Save Energy

Ralph Masiello, innovation director, KEMA

George Huber, chemical engineer, University of Massachusetts at Amherst

Vivian Loftness, architect, Carnegie Mellon University

Daniel Nocera, chemist, MIT

Brooke Coleman, executive director, New Fuels Alliance

S. Massoud Amin,electrical and computer engineer, University of Minnesota

James D. McCalley, electrical and computer engineer, Iowa State University

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