Lighting the Way: Toward a Sustainable Energy Future

  • AuthorInterAcademies Council
  • Release Date1 October 2007
  • Copyright2007
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4.4 The role of science and technology

Over the past 150 years, progress in science and technology has been a key driver of human and societal development, vastly expanding the horizons of human potential and enabling radical transformations in the quality of life enjoyed by millions of people. The harnessing of modern sources of energy counts among the major accomplishments of past scientific and technological progress. And expanding access to modern forms of energy is itself essential to create the conditions for further progress. All available forecasts point to continued rapid growth in global demand for energy to fuel economic growth and meet the needs of a still-expanding world population. In this context, few questions are more urgent than how can science and technology can be enlisted to meet the challenge of long-term energy sustainability?

As a starting point for exploring that question, it is useful to distinguish between several generally accepted phases of technological evolution, beginning with basic scientific research and followed by development and demonstration, RD&D. When all goes well, RD&D is followed by a ‘third D’—the deployment phase— wherein demonstrated technologies cross the threshold to commercial viability and gain acceptance in the marketplace. Typically, government’s role is most pronounced in the early research and development phases of this progression while the private sector plays a larger role in the demonstration and deployment phases. Nevertheless, government can also make an important contribution in the demonstration and early deployment phases, for example, by funding demonstration projects, providing financial incentives to overcome early deployment hurdles, and helping to create a market for new technologies through purchasing and other policies.

The remainder of this section focuses on the pre-deployment phases when issues of science and technology are most central. Nevertheless it is worth emphasizing that the deployment/commercialization step is crucial, and that it generates much information and insight that can benefit the R&D focused on in the early steps, in a process of refinement and adoption that is fundamentally iterative. Many demonstrated technologies encounter significant market hurdles as they approach the deployment phase; for some—hybrid vehicles, hydrogen as a transport fuel, solar energy, coal-based integrated gasification combined cycle (IGCC), and fuel cells— cost rather than technological feasibility becomes the central issue. Established private-sector stakeholders can be expected to resist, or even actively undermine, the deployment of new technologies, thus necessitating additional policy interventions.

Most of the energy technologies that are now in some phase of the RD&D process have something in common: either by themselves or in combination with each other, they hold significant promise for reducing carbon dioxide emissions (Table 4.2). New technology that promotes endues efficiency (in buildings and appliances, vehicles, and processes) probably offers the most cost-effective opportunities, relative to technology on the supply side. Within the large set of supply options noted in Table 4.2, the use of biofuels in the transport sector may offer the most leverage, at least within the next ten to twenty years, while—in a somewhat longer timeframe—carbon capture and storage may play a major role. But these changes will occur within the next several decades only if decisive, initial action is undertaken at a global level within the next five to ten years. Further RD&D in third-and fourth-generation nuclear reactors can help diversify the world’s future low-carbon energy portfolio, but only if solid, enforceable worldwide agreements can be reached on non-proliferation and on the disposal/storage of spent nuclear fuel. Further RD&D attention should also be focused on improving the efficiency and reducing the cost of energy conversion and storage technologies, including fuel cells, conventional batteries, and compressed air.

It should be emphasized that Table 4.2 lists only some of the promising RD&D opportunities that exist on the end-use side of the energy equation. With further technology investments, significant advances could be achieved in the efficiency of key energy-using devices, such as vehicles, appliances, and equipment, as well as in larger energy systems, such as cities, transportation systems, industrial processes, and whole buildings. The requisite technologies are still in a basic research phase in some promising areas, including:

    efficiently extracting useful energy from the lignocellulosic part of biomass,
    increasing biomass yields by boosting photosynthetic water and nutrient efficiencies through genetic engineering,
    applying nanotechnology and/or using new materials to improve the energy conversion efficiency of photovoltaic devices, and
    developing solid-state storage options for hydrogen.

























Source: IEA, 2006.

Other technologies require more applied research or further development, including scale-up to a working, experimental laboratory model. The transition to demonstration, which is the prerequisite for eventual deployment, is critical and often gets insufficient attention from those who are or have been engaged in funding the R&D phase.

In sum, the world’s S&T community has a central role to play in enabling the transition to sustainable energy systems. At least two conditions however must be met:

    Funding (both public and private) for energy RD&D must be sufficient.
    RD&D efforts must be effectively targeted and internationally coordinated to address both the supply and demand sides of the energy equation.

With regard to the first condition, it should be noted that global average public and private expenditures on energy R&D have declined over the last two decades, with a tendency to level off over the last decade, whereas total average public expenditures on all forms of R&D increased over the same time period (Kammen and Nemet, 2005; Nature, 2006). Figure 4.2 shows total public energy R&D expenditures by IEA member countries, and compares them to the global price of oil (in U.S. dollar per barrel) over the

period 1974–2004. In 2005, total R&D expenditures (on the same purchasing power parity basis and adjusted for inflation to the value of the U.S. dollar in the year 2000) amounted to US$726 billion for OECD countries and US$155 billion for non-OECD countries. Governments’ shares in these expenditures were 30 percent and 40 percent, respectively; hence total public R&D expenditures amounted to US$280 billion (OECD, 2006a). At approximately US$9 billion,62 the share of these expenditures specifically directed to energy technologies accounts for a mere 3.2 percent of all public R&D funding.

The development of a diverse portfolio of sustainable energy technologies will require a sizeable boost—on the order of a doubling—in worldwide public investments in energy R&D. Such an increase in energy R&D funding should occur within the next five years and will most likely need to be sustained for at least several decades, if not longer. At the same time, governments must promote the expansion of private-sector investments in long-term energy R&D. Industry can bring crucial expertise and insights to the RD&D process (especially since deployment usually occurs through the private sector), as well as resources greater than those available to governments once the deployment stage has been reached. Government


















Figure 4.2 Public energy R&D expenditures in IEA countries and real oil price 1974–2004

Note: Total R&D budget includes conservation, fossil fuels, nuclear fussion, nuclear fission, renewable energy, power and storage technologies, amd other technology and research.

Sources: IEA, 2005; and OECD, 2006b

policies—such as a cap-and-trade program for limiting emissions or a carbon tax—would be hugely instrumental in creating incentives for the private sector to increase its RD&D investments. Thus, for example, a policy designed to expand the contribution from new renewable, carbon-neutral energy sources will force ‘traditional’ energy companies to rethink their future product portfolio and marketing strategies.

Continued policy uncertainty makes it difficult for energy companies to develop mid- and long-term business strategies. During the often protracted period required to formulate a comprehensive new policy, governments can reduce this uncertainty by adopting legislation that awards early action in the right direction while penalizing further activities that are counterproductive to achieving sustainability objectives.

Increased public funding for energy RD&D can come from a variety of sources. In many industrialized and large developing countries, much could be accomplished by refocusing or redirecting funds that are already in the national budget.63 Additional funds could be obtained by rationalizing existing subsidy programs and/or by raising new revenues through energy consumption or pollution taxes (usually of the excise type) or by auctioning permits-to-emit under an emissions trading program.

Success depends, of course, not only on funding but on well-managed programs. Given that the scale of the challenge is likely to continue to exceed the public resources made available to address it, energy RD&D efforts around the world must be thoughtfully focused and aimed at answering concrete questions and solving defined problems. Energy RD&D should also be coordinated internationally and conducted in a framework of collaboration—both between countries and between the public and private sectors—to avoid unnecessary duplication and inefficient use of funds. International efforts to promote coordination and collaboration should thoroughly involve developing countries, not least to help them leapfrog to more advanced energy technologies and systems. Implicitly, this requires concerted efforts to facilitate technology transfer. The scientific community can play a moderating role in the often thorny debate about how best to accomplish this; developing countries, in turn, should create the right conditions for technology transfer.

The stakes are very high. Bringing the combined energies and expertise of the world’s S&T community to bear on finding solutions is essential and will likely demand new international institutions or mechanisms to better leverage and harmonize global efforts.

Document Date: October 1, 2007
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