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Energy Innovation Key to Economic Growth, Clean Environment
June 21, 2013

American University uses solar panels to heat dormitory water supplies, a test of how well the technology meets its needs.

By Charlene Porter
IIP Staff Writer
June 20, 2013

The second person to serve President Obama as energy secretary is roaring into the job at full throttle. Department of Energy (DOE) Secretary Ernest Moniz appeared before the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology June 18 to explain how he’ll tackle the administration’s goals to produce more energy, grow the economy and protect the environment at the same time.

Moniz steps into the position during a period of profound change in the U.S. energy sector. New discoveries and new technologies have created significant increases in domestic energy production, allowing a decrease in reliance on oil imports. In the renewable energy segment of the market, innovation and environmental concerns have resulted in a doubling in the output of power generated by wind and solar. The results translate into progress in reducing greenhouse gases.

“Carbon emissions have fallen to the lowest level in the U.S. in nearly two decades,” said Moniz.

He cautioned against belief in quick fixes and overnight solutions for problems in the energy sector, which have been decades in the making. But Moniz and the president have a huge goal in mind for the not so distant future.

“Shifting America’s cars and trucks off oil” is what the administration is aiming for, Moniz said. More efficient vehicles, alternative fuels and vehicle electrification all are part of the solution, along with new standards for gradual increases that manufacturers must make in the fuel efficiency of new vehicles coming out of factories.

Transportation consumes about 27 percent of all energy used in the United States each year. It accounts for more than 70 percent of all oil use. Transportation is the second-largest U.S. energy consumer, just behind industrial enterprises, which consume about 30 percent of all energy used, according to the Energy Information Administration, an office of DOE.

Another key strategy for doing more with less energy and less pollution is ongoing research and development of better technologies. Moniz said the Obama administration is asking Congress to provide that research funding for upcoming budget years.

The Democratic administration and the Republican-controlled House of Representatives have found agreement difficult when it comes to budget matters. But House Science Committee Chairman Lamar Smith, a Republican from Texas, also said the research will be critical to future development. Research should be devoted, Smith said, to making alternative fuel technologies more affordable.

“Global coal use is expected to increase 50 percent by 2035, which will dramatically increase carbon dioxide emissions,” Smith said. “This won’t change unless alternative forms of energy become more cost-effective.”

Decreases in greenhouse gas emissions from the United States will do little to prevent dangerous levels of climate warming if emissions increase in the rest of the world. So affordable, alternative energy technologies accessible to developing countries are the “only practical long-term solution,” Smith said.

Moniz says DOE has calculated that tremendous gains can be made with research investments.

“These investments will help us double American energy productivity by 2030, double renewable electricity generation again by 2020, cut net oil imports in half by the end of the decade [and] save consumers and businesses money by reducing energy use,” Moniz said.

The DOE’s SunShot Initiative is a program already working to make solar energy cost-competitive with conventional sources of electrical energy. In the little more than two years since it began, the initiative has worked with private sector partners to start about 150 projects, all working to better develop aspects of solar energy technologies so they are more readily available for integration into the nation’s overall energy grid. Those activities aim to bring down the kilowatt-hour price of solar-generated power so that it is cost-competitive with power now generated by carbon-based fuels.

The U.S government also invests in innovation through the Advanced Research Projects Agency–Energy (ARPA-E) to support high-impact energy-related research projects with the potential “to transform the energy sector,” Moniz said. The agency has been at work only since 2009, but already it has supported scientists and researchers who are making important advances, such as building batteries with greater energy density and engineering microbes to make a transportation fuel.