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New alternative energy initiatives will help the U.S. break its reliance on hydrocarbons

By Samuel W. Bodman

United States faces big challenges in the energy and transportation arena. President George W. Bush put it plainly in the State of the Union message earlier this year: America, he said, is addicted to oil. With the U.S. now importing 60 percent of the oil we use and a national bill for this habit that came to $250 billion last year, there is simply no time to waste. With worldwide demand growing rapidly, and with concern about the environmental impact of greenhouse gases rising, the deployment of clean, reliable sources of energy is clearly in our national interest. But it will not be an easy task. In his address, President Bush unveiled two new programs that will help the U.S. maintain its economic and scientific edge, notably in the energy area.

First, the American Competitiveness Initiative proposes a major increase in federal funding for basic science research, particularly for the physical sciences. Our Office of Science is now the largest source of federal funds for basic research in the physical sciences in the United States. But in order to ensure that we remain the world leader in this area, the President has committed to doubling the budget of this Office over the next ten years. This administration believes that advances in science and technology will, among other things, help the U.S. break its reliance on imported energy sources and hydrocarbons. And so, in conjunction with the Competitiveness Initiative, the new Advanced Energy Initiative proposes to significantly increase our national investment in alternative fuel and clean energy technologies in order to reduce our dependence on foreign sources of energy.

The focus here is on technologies that are close to making a splash but need a final push. Over the past decade or so, a tremendous mount of work has been done on possible new energy sources. The Advanced Energy Initiative essentially proposes to pick some inners. This may not be the usual role for government, but we must do it if we are to meet the energy demands of the future. Our goal is to identify the most promising technologies-the ones that could have the greatest impact on the marketplace in the relatively near future-and then really go after them. The way I think about it, we are looking for technologies that will break through in my lifetime-say in the next 20 years or so.

That may seem like a long time. But considering how complicated the science is, how long it can take to bring a technology to market, and how large and complex the problem is, this is really a reasonable-even aggressive-time frame. Among other things, the Advanced Energy Initiative will: accelerate the development of solar photovoltaics, a technology that converts energy from the sun into electricity in a highly efficient manner; improve the efficiency and lower the costs of new wind-power technologies; produce better batteries for use
in hybrid automobiles; and develop cheap, practical ethanol made from plant fiber, which some scientists suggest could make ethanol cost-competitive by 2012 and displace up to 30 percent of current fuel use. These programs deal with generating power from clean coal, from wind and solar energy, and-in the automotive sector-alternative fuels such as ethanol in the near term, and ultimately electricity and hydrogen.

What they have in common is a focus on accelerating the development of the most promising technologies in all of these areas, so we can bring them online at the earliest possible date. In the automotive sector, the technologies now being developed for flex-fuel and hybrid vehicles and hydrogen fuel cells will open the door to exciting new vehicle designs and configurations that I believe will hold great appeal to consumers, while also addressing our concerns about fuel sources and emissions. Regardless of the specific alternative energy effort-whether it's solar power, wind power or encouraging the use and availability of ethanol-the Department of Energy will continue to encourage all stake holders to move forward, and seeks to be an active and effective partner with industry in developing these and other truly transformational technologies.

Samuel W. Bodman is U.S. Secretary of Energy.

September/October 2006