Source: Science | Emily Underwood | September 11, 2015

Buildings, such as these in Chicago, account for about three-quarters of electricity use in the US. (Credit: Justin Brown, FLICKR)

Buildings, such as these in Chicago, account for about three-quarters of electricity use in the US. (Credit: Justin Brown, FLICKR)

The 400-plus page Quadrennial Technology Review (QTR) released yesterday by the Department of Energy (DOE) is “far better than any sleeping pill,” Michael Knotek, DOE’s deputy under secretary for science and energy, quipped yesterday following the document’s public release at the Washington, D.C., headquarters of AAAS (publisher ofScienceInsider). “It will stun you to sleep, and you can use it for years for that purpose.”

But an all-star lineup of President Barack Obama’s administration’s science leaders, including Secretary of Energy Ernest Moniz and White House science adviser John Holdren, applauded the giant tome for distilling the views of more than 700 energy experts on promising research areas. They identified “enormous, underappreciated, and underexploited” opportunities to conserve energy and increase supply in six sectors of the U.S. energy system, Knotek said, including the electric grid, buildings, and transportation. At present, “there are countless sources of inertia” that cause more than half of the country’s energy to be wasted, Knotek added.

DOE released its first QTR report, commissioned by then-Secretary of Energy Steven Chu, in 2011. Among other recommendations, it found that DOE should devote its greatest R&D efforts to electric vehicles and modernizing the electric grid. The new report, which is three times as long, “goes beyond the first in scope and depth,” said the current secretary of energy, Ernest Moniz, at the event. It analyzes all forms of energy supply and use in the United States at a much deeper and more comprehensive level, he said.

Buildings, which currently account for 76% of all electricity use in the United States, and 40% of all energy use, emerge as a central target of DOE’s analysis, said Dan Arvizu, director of the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Golden, Colorado, one of the contributors. Wider adoption of technologies already widespread in the United States, such as efficient equipment that has earned the government’s Energy Star seal, could result in a roughly 20% reduction in consumption, the report found. But emerging technologies, such as more efficient LED lights and better heat pump systems, could produce a reduction of 35% if widely applied.

Much has changed in U.S. energy supply since the 2011 report, Holdren noted. The United States has seen a “renaissance” in fossil fuel production, making it the world’s leading combined producer of oil and gas, he said. What is needed now, the report suggests, are new projects aimed at improving the capture of carbon dioxide produced by burning those fossil fuels.

Meanwhile, whereas coal consumption has gone down by one-fifth over the past few years, the amount of wind power being produced has more than tripled, and solar power production has increased 20-fold, Holdren added. These increases in renewable energy explain, in part, “why we’ve had a roughly 10% emissions reduction since 2007 or so,” Moniz said.

Looking to future supplies of clean power, the report emphasizes the potential of wind power. The report estimates that wind could provide 35% of the country’s electricity by 2050, especially if firms are able to increase turbine hub height by 10s of meters in certain regions, and use advanced computing to help predict where wind farms should be located.

Echoed throughout the report is the need for a more sophisticated and secure energy grid. Soon, experts predict that the U.S. energy system will include more than 150 million interacting elements, Knotek said. That means engineers will need ever more sophisticated and powerful computer models to track the flow of energy, and better batteries to support computing and store energy. And the United States and other countries will need innovative materials and technologies to achieve energy security and protect the planet from climate change, Moniz said. Referring to the upcoming United Nations Climate Change Conference in Paris, scheduled for early December, he said: “On the way to Paris, in Paris, and sure as hell after Paris, we’re going to continue working on this.”