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Robert FriBack to OpinionRobert Fri

Energy’s silver buckshot

There’s no silver bullet, only silver buckshot. That’s the way energy policy analysts describe the new technologies that would help shape a cleaner and more secure energy system. It’s a clever way of saying that successfully dealing with our energy problems requires a diverse portfolio of technologies. Or to put it another way, no matter how much you fancy any particular new idea – solar, coal, efficiency or nuclear – it’s not going to be enough.

Figuring out how to hit the energy target with a shotgun rather than a rifle is a challenge for those overseeing our nation’s approach to energy, but the National Academy of Sciences and others have addressed this issue in the past year. Amazingly enough, these studies come out at about the same place. And having a consensus about how to spend the taxpayer’s money wisely is both rare and important as the nation enters a time of tightening federal budgets.

The studies agree on three main points. First, we should spend more money on energy research. Federal energy research spending has been about $5 billion a year. A group of business executives speaking as the American Energy Innovation Council suggests it should be three to five times that amount, and others agree. Where would the extra spending go? In the near term, research is needed to continue to improve energy efficiency and the performance of new technologies already in the marketplace, like wind power. Looking further ahead, we should be building full-scale demonstrations of clean coal and biofuels technology, as well as supporting the first new nuclear power plants in this country in 30 years. Emerging technologies like hybrid and electric vehicles need research breakthroughs to make them economically competitive. And even further out, we should be exploring totally disruptive technologies like artificial photosynthesis that, if not a silver bullet, would surely be a healthy load of buckshot.

The second point of agreement is that the managers of federal research programs need to learn some lessons from the private sector about innovation. Here the current team at the Department of Energy (DOE) gets high marks for designing effective new research programs. For example, they are focusing research dollars on key technical obstacles, like highly efficient storage batteries, where a research breakthrough would open new possibilities for reforming the energy system. Another approach used at DOE is assembling an interdisciplinary team to shepherd technology from the research stage to the product stage, a model that many private sector companies use successfully. And borrowing an idea from the Defense Department, the DOE folks are funding high-risk, high-reward research projects selected from thousands of ideas proposed in an open competition. That’s how the Internet was invented, and while more robust energy research might not yield anything as successful as the Internet, swinging for the fence is still a good idea.

Finally, how to widely deploy new technologies? Until now, a lot of attention has been paid to inventing a new technology and then helping it across the so-called “valley of death” – the risky transition from lab to market. That’s important, of course, but even if the product gets past the valley of death, all you can really be sure of is that it’s undead. Whether it turns out to be a zombie or a vibrant addition to the energy system depends on what happens after it reaches the market. Lots of nontechnical obstacles stand in the way. For example, homeowners might resist buying energy-efficient devices simply because it’s too much trouble, or fight renewable energy projects that intrude on the local landscape. Out-of-date building codes can impede development of energy-efficient buildings, or the tax code can favor incumbent technology over new entrants.

What makes these barriers all the more challenging is that their roots lie deep within individual behavior and institutional inertia. The President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology recently suggested that all the interested parties, public and private, share information about governmental obstacles to innovative energy technologies. Sounds to me like a good way to start clearing the underbrush.

In the current political climate, which is characterized more by conflict than consensus, agreement about how to move toward a better energy future seems especially important. The nation does need to change its energy system, and trying to do so with big ideas like cap-and-trade appears off the table for now. But wisely spending more on energy research and weeding out the barriers to private sector success would certainly move us in the right direction.

Robert Fri is a visiting scholar at Resources for the Future, a nonprofit organization that studies natural resource and environmental issues. He has served as director of the National Museum of Natural History, president of Resources for the Future, and deputy administrator of both the Environmental Protection Agency and the Energy Research and Development Administration. Read his full bio.