’Green’ energy needs a big leap
Experts say scientific breakthroughs are the key to making renewable power sources cheap and easy to use.
Reporting from Washington — When Energy Secretary Steven Chu talks about how Americans can break their addiction to oil and coal, he starts with his hi-fi amplifier. It’s so old that the on-off light burned out long ago. But inside lies a technology that — in its day — was as revolutionary as the changes needed to solve the nation’s energy problems.
Radios, telephones and other electronics once depended on fragile vacuum tubes the size of small light bulbs. Then scientists pioneered a smaller, cheaper and more durable replacement called the transistor, opening the way to trans-Atlantic phone calls and a host of other marvels, including Chu’s stereo.
Chu, a Nobel Prize-winning physicist, and other experts say similar scientific breakthroughs are needed to make renewable power sources such as wind, solar and biofuels as cheap and easy to use as costly, environmentally damaging oil and coal. Toward that end, President Obama’s stimulus package contains $8 billion for energy research, including $400 million targeted for game-changing technology.
The problem is that over the last three decades, the U.S. has spent many times that much on energy research and development — with nothing like a transistor to show for it.
“It’s very easy to say we should spend more” on research, said Jeffrey Wadsworth, chief executive and president of the Battelle Memorial Institute, which manages several Energy Department laboratories. “What really needs to happen is more effective use of the money.”
As Wadsworth is quick to acknowledge, that’s easier said than done.
A recent Energy Department task force report details the sort of breakthroughs crucial to fulfilling Obama’s vision of a “clean energy economy” that could slash dependence on foreign oil, combat climate change and ignite the next great domestic job boom.
The wish list includes cells that convert sunlight to electricity with double or triple the efficiency of today’s solar panels; batteries that store 10 times more energy than current models; a process for capturing and storing the carbon dioxide emissions from coal; and advanced materials that allow coal and nuclear power plants to operate at hotter temperatures and higher efficiency.
Researchers are working on all of them. But what’s required is more than incremental advances in technology. It is advances in understanding basic physics and chemistry that are “beyond our present reach,” the report said.