Having endured record prices for gasoline, spikes in our nation’s natural gas and heating oil costs, rising electricity prices, and increasing alarm over our planet’s environmental health, it is clear that we need a major transformation in the way we develop and use our energy resources. Change is coming. In shaping this change, we must make smart decisions to ensure a sustainable energy future.
America’s consumers have many expectations about the energy they use. They expect it to be affordable and predictable. Energy needs make up a major portion of household and business budgets. Consumers expect energy to be produced in a way that is environmentally sound – without harmful impacts on the quality of air, water, or land. Consumers recognize the relationship between energy and a sustainable economy and expect the energy sector to support economic development goals. They expect reliable, high quality energy. Blackouts cause disruption in our daily lives and loss of economic activity. They expect our energy systems to be safe and secure. They expect these fuels and technologies to be managed in a way that withstands disruptions caused by acts of nature or accidental or deliberate human actions.
Each of our energy fuels involves a set of benefits and costs. Coal, for example, is relatively affordable and supply is available, but its extraction and use entail significant environmental challenges. Natural gas does not emit large amounts of greenhouse gases, but adequate supply is an issue. Wind and solar energy are renewable, but they can’t be counted on when the wind doesn’t blow or the sun doesn’t shine. Nuclear power is available, but without technological advances. Oil has been the transportation fuel of choice, but much of the supply comes from unstable countries.
There is no silver bullet. It is clear that we need a broad portfolio of fuels and technologies to meet the nation’s future energy demands. The challenge is to adopt policies and programs to maximize the positive attributes of each fuel and minimize the negatives.
Shockingly, since the 1970s public and private funding of research and development for energy technologies has been in steady decline. This trend is not unique to the U.S. Funding for energy R&D in the European Union as a proportion of total R&D has declined from a high of around 50 percent in the 1980s to a projected 14 percent between 1998 and 2002.
Our consumers are looking to both the government and the business community to address the energy challenges they see today. With both national security and economic security at risk, there is sufficient justification for an expanded role for government. The first step has to be reversing the trend in energy R&D funding and providing real incentives to ensure deployment of these new technologies.