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For Energy Department, More Green Cars, Less Next-Next-Generation Technology

The Department of Energy did a little soul-searching and found it was focusing too much on futuristic ideas.

The Department of Energy today released its first Quadrennial Technology Review, a future-looking document that required the department to go through the bureaucratic equivalent of cleaning out its closet and rethinking its wardrobe. It found was that it had been spending too much money on clothes it might never actually wear (like forward-thinking clean energy technology) and not enough on practical shoes (like transportation). In government speak, the Department of Energy thinks the country has “underinvested in the transportation sector.”

The department’s new strategy is to focus on technologies that have a strong chance of jumping over the “valley of death”—the time between a pilot project and commercial demonstrations when new technologies tend to suffocate from lack of funding—within the next 10 years. Fuel efficiency technologies and electric vehicles have a greater likelihood of clearing the hump than ambitious clean energy or building efficiency projects, according to the department’s analysis. For starters, the Department argues, “buildings last longer than vehicles.” Cars spend an average of about 15 years in active use; buildings and power plants live for decades. If the government wants to change energy use quickly, it should focus on changing it in the sector where people are going to need new products, the department said.

The DOE is also backing away from funding clean energy technologies that "are multiple generations away from practical use." The government shouldn’t abandon groundbreaking research, of course, and it’s not. But the technology that we need to draw down carbon emissions already exists. There’s not one cure-all solution, but technology that harvest the energy of the wind, water, sun, and crops, combined with energy efficiency strategies, can cut the world’s greenhouse gas emissions by 85 percent by 2050, according to a group of engineering institutions in countries from Germany to India to Japan.

The group did not include any U.S. institutions, but the Department of Energy’s analysis implies the same conclusion. While it recommends that the department back away from researching next-next-next-gen technologies, it also says the department should focus on deploying clean electricity.

In its review, the DOE also recognizes, that it can’t single-handedly control how quickly these technologies take over. The department aims to reduce the cost of creating clean-electricity technologies, but recognizes that they’ll only come online when the private sector markets are ready for them. “Policies, such as a federal clean energy standard, would shape those markets,” the report says.

A cap-and-trade system also would have shaped the market for clean-electricity technology, but politicians in D.C. are far from adopting policies that would actually push clean-electricity deployment. With gas prices so high, though, Americans don’t need members of Congress to represent their interests on green vehicle technology—more people realize on their own that it makes sense to buy a more fuel-efficient vehicle or a hybrid. For the DOE, transportation is an easy sell.

Photo via (cc) Flickr user felixkramer

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