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Fall 2009 Vol. 9 Number 2



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Energizing Times

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The Changing Face of U.S. Energy Options

The America’s Energy Future project — a National Academies-wide initiative — brought together 65 experts to provide detailed, technical assessments of energy technologies available to the U.S. Panels were convened to study such issues as potential new energy supplies from coal and biomass, renewable resources, nuclear energy, and the potential for energy efficiency savings.


Beginning with a summit held in March 2008 and culminating with a 650-page report released this past summer, the initiative illuminated the urgency of addressing the role of energy in national security, economic concerns, and climate change.

Concerns over energy supply and use have been mounting for decades, particularly with regard to our growing reliance on imported petroleum and the environmental impacts of fossil fuel combustion. The U.S. now gets about 56 percent of its oil from foreign suppliers, up from 40 percent in 1990, and greenhouse gas emissions play a large role in global climate change. Changing the way that the U.S. uses energy is a broad issue. It will involve energy efficiency measures, such as those adopted in the 1970s, formulation of consistent government policies to drive these changes, and new technologies that can improve the way energy is produced, distributed, and consumed.

Before changes to U.S. energy usage can occur, however, decision makers first need a realistic picture of the options that exist. The America’s Energy Future project was launched to provide all the technical information needed to have an informed debate on the issue of energy in the U.S. In 2009 the project released Liquid Transportation Fuels From Coal and Biomass; Electricity From Renewable Resources; and Realistic Prospects for Energy Efficiency in the U.S. The final report, America’s Energy Future: Technology and Transformation, brings together the findings from all of the panels and also includes information on fossil fuels, nuclear energy, and the nation’s electric grid.

One of the main messages in the final report is that with a sustained national commitment, the United States could make substantial improvements to the way it produces and uses energy. ©Comstock/PunchStockActions need to be made soon, however, to achieve these improvements; the report states that actions taken between now and 2020 will determine our options for decades to come. Rather than make specific policy recommendations, the report provides timelines of potential technology development, and, in some cases, estimates relative costs and potential effects on greenhouse gas emissions and energy usage.

The report states that energy efficiency is a near-term and low-cost option to reduce energy demand while new technologies, such as carbon capture and storage, could substantially impact our ability to develop more environmentally friendly sources of electricity. The report notes that there is no single “silver bullet” technology that will address our energy challenges. Instead, a portfolio approach should be used, investing in several different technologies with the expectation that some will succeed, some will fail, but all will push research and development further so that the energy decisions that must be made in the next decade will be made wisely.
Rebecca Alvania


 America’s Energy Future was funded by the U.S. Department of Energy, BP America, Dow Chemical Company Foundation, Fred Kavli and the Kavli Foundation, GE Energy, General Motors Corp., Intel Corp., and the W.M. Keck Foundation. Support was also provided by the National Academies through the following endowed funds created to perpetually support the work of the National Research Council: Thomas Lincoln Casey Fund, Arthur L. Day Fund, W.K. Kellogg Foundation Fund, George and Cynthia Mitchell Endowment for Sustainability Science, and Frank Press Fund for Dissemination and Outreach.



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Copyright 2009 by the National Academy of Sciences