Understanding New Frontiers in Energy Efficiency Research: APS Study as a Roadmap to Energy Solutions

By Congressman Nick Lampson
September 2008

It is no coincidence that the U.S. ranks at the top of the major economies in both per capita GDP and per capita energy use. A couple of centuries of innovative, if not judicious, exploitation of our natural resources have allowed us the quality of life we enjoy today and brought along an assortment of unfortunate side effects of which we are all aware. We now have the opportunity and responsibility to leverage that same capacity for innovation to decouple our prosperity from our energy use. This change could not have come at a more opportune time with rapidly developing countries such as China following in our footsteps and looking to create a feasible model of large-scale economic growth with responsible energy use. Economic transformation on this scale will not be quick or easy, and for the time being all options are on the table. Luckily, the most powerful approach happens to be the simplest and the least expensive-conservation and efficiency.

Reducing the nation’s energy intensity requires both a change in consumer behavior and a constant flow of new, more efficient technologies into the marketplace.

When it comes to behavior, we know surprisingly little about what drives individuals, communities and the industry in making energy-related decisions. For instance, we have seen how a slowing economy and high fuel prices have reduced driver mileage in the U.S. by almost 5 percent from last year, but there is more to consumer behavior than money. Americans are developing a new system of values for energy. However, there is still too little correlation between what we believe and what we do. The application of social sciences to the energy problem will give us critical new insights into these complex dynamics, and will in turn, give us new tools to guide public policy and help consumers make better choices.

In order to make wise energy decisions, consumers must first have reasonable options to choose from. That may sound obvious enough, but I believe there is a false impression about the availability and efficacy of many new energy technologies. If there is anything that traditional energy resources have provided it is low-cost, reliable, and accessible end-use technologies–and consumers will only expect it to get easier. The next generation of vehicles must be as affordable and have a driving range and ease-of-use similar to conventional vehicles. The same can be said for buildings and industrial processes in terms of life-cycle costs, comfort, productivity, etc. Whether we are talking about hybrid cars, Energy Star appliances, or even coal gasification, there is a wide range of more efficient and cleaner technologies available today. But, in the absence of aggressive and binding policies mandating their use, the market simply will not bear a significant cost premium or energy penalty just for the sake of doing the right thing. Furthermore, I believe the current “advanced” technologies are just the frontrunners of an energy future that we can scarcely conceive of today. That is where this study and the membership of APS come in.

To know where we are going in energy efficiency, we have to first recognize the major technological hurdles to be addressed through research and development. The problem is that, unlike other energy technology areas such as renewables, “energy efficiency” does not describe one particular subset of technologies. It is more an approach to optimizing a highly fragmented assortment of energy-consuming devices that range from the ubiquitous and mundane to truly revolutionary technologies and a framework to reevaluating our relationship with energy. The APS study should provide the first real roadmap for developing a long-term energy efficiency research agenda.

We all know there will not be one silver bullet energy technology, but countless solutions that have been accurately described as “silver buckshot.” This is a multi-generational problem that we have to approach from all possible angles and never let up. In a perfect world,  the laws of thermodynamics would be the only limiting factor. But it is not perfect, and there are a myriad of complex factors that hamper progress in energy. From my perspective in Congress, the biggest challenge is finding the financial resources to help fund the full range of research that will result in both incremental improvements to existing systems and fundamental game-changing breakthroughs for entirely new energy systems. We can’t get there with the status quo. Funding energy R&D at a level commensurate with the scale and complexity of the challenge will require innovation at a number of levels.

First, we must be innovative about where we find the money. For instance, I have put forth various proposals that include exchanging crude oil in the Strategic Petroleum Reserve and using the marginal proceeds to fund energy R&D. We could also see a significant influx of R&D funds from auction revenues under a carbon cap-and-trade regime. These are just two examples of alternative funding models, and there will be many more. But they illustrate the growing recognition that it is getting more difficult to rely on the annual appropriations process alone to put our federal energy R&D enterprise on the trajectory the problem requires.

We must also be innovative about how we approach energy R&D. We should devise new models for translating fundamental scientific breakthroughs into technological advances, and then shepherd these advances into the marketplace. In regards to the existing Department of Energy bureaucracy, again, we just can’t get there from here. DOE currently does a lot of good work, but it is not enough. Bridging the so-called “valleys of death” between government-sponsored basic research, applied research and the marketplace will require more than just money. We have to rethink the structure of our national research enterprise, go beyond organizational stovepipes and institutional inertia, take greater risks, and leverage the talent and resources in the academic and private sector on a level that has not been attempted before. DARPA has done this for defense technologies, many of which have ended up in the broader marketplace. We now have authorized in law an ARPA for Energy, or ARPA-E, which will utilize many of the organizational and cultural elements that made DARPA a success. As the report points out, it has to be done right or not done at all.

ARPA-E will have no in-house research capability. Instead, projects are carried out through teams of public and private sector researchers, technology developers, and market experts, led by talented and determined Program Managers hired for three-year terms and on a pay structure similar to that of the private sector. ARPA-E staff should have the flexibility and autonomy to take technological leaps of faith and explore areas that are too multi-disciplinary or risky for any one sector alone to tackle. Because industry and universities are involved at the outset, chances are much greater that the results of ARPA-E sponsored research will end up in the marketplace, and not on the laboratory shelf. The ultimate products of a properly functioning ARPA-E will be more research areas explored, more money for energy research being spent in more places, and the feeding of more talent into the energy innovation pipeline.

A new ethos is taking shape in America akin to the resourcefulness that settled the American West, gave us victory in World War II, and landed on the moon. These historical feats were not achieved through indiscriminate wastefulness, and there is no reason we cannot reverse the current trends in our energy consumption. I believe Americans as a whole understand the value of energy efficiency and that technological progress does not have to come at the cost of economic hardship. We have the opportunity and obligation to capitalize on our vast innovative capacity to transform our energy economy. But it will take the concerted efforts of organizations like APS to lay the groundwork and provide the technical baselines and projections for addressing the energy challenge. Therefore, I support its efforts in that regard, and I look forward to working with APS to translate the results of this and other studies into sound energy policies for the nation. 

Congressman Lampson (D-TX 22nd) serves as Chairman of the Subcommittee on Energy and Environment, U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Science & Technology. As a representative of Southeast Texas, Lampson has been a staunch advocate for the development of new energy technologies and NASA’s Johnson Space Center during his 5 terms in Congress.

Congressman Nick Lampson

Congressman Nick Lampson