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Energy Technology: Cultivating Clean Tech

New Models for Energy RD&D: A new ‘Clean Energy Institute’ could lead the industry’s war on climate change.

Fortnightly Magazine - May 2008

support them. Further, DOE’s National Laboratories have been conducting research for many years, and their capabilities will enhance the national program.

Additionally, DOE loan guarantees and tax incentives would continue to be critical for new nuclear plants, and for demonstrations of the advanced coal technologies like IGCC with CCS, oxy-combustion of coal, scrubbers for CO 2 removal from existing coal plants, and others, where there are huge development issues to be resolved to achieve commercially feasible options. And the costs of initial deployments are highly uncertain, which calls for DOE participation as well.

• EPRI Expanded : Looking at the private sector, EPRI is an obvious candidate to take on the direction of an expanded national clean-energy RD&D program. EPRI’s current research effort is highly regarded and capably managed, having wide industry support for its program’s fundamental direction. Jeff Sterba, CEO of PNM Resources and chairman of the board of EPRI, argues strongly in EPRI’s 2006 Annual Report that the organization is ready to take on such a challenge.

EPRI’s “Prism” analysis—so named because of its graphical resemblance to a color spectrum—is the most thorough and detailed strategic plan developed by any of the industry groups (see Figure 1) . The technology targets are clearly defined, with an aggressive time-frame. They are both comprehensive and broadly based, which would give them an excellent chance of producing winners by 2020.

Technologies identified by EPRI include not only advanced coal combustion with carbon capture and sequestration and advanced nuclear technologies, but also the enhanced transmission requirements that will enable greater use of variable renewable resources, new storage options, and distribution-enabled technologies including energy efficiency, plug-in electric vehicles and distributed-energy resources. Last summer, the Prism results were vetted with a large group of outside experts. This led to strong buy-ins and endorsements from the utility industry as well as environmental groups.

EPRI has a long history of research in the utility field, but has not yet managed a program as large as that envisioned in the PRISM analysis to address the unique challenges of reducing GHG emissions. Further, EPRI’s budget was severely impacted by deregulation in the mid 1990s. Deregulated utilities were forced to focus on becoming low-cost power providers, and they responded in part by slashing their budgets for R&D. As a result, EPRI’s current research programs, at $300 million annually from voluntary industry contributions, are vastly under-funded, considering the scope of the national requirements.

EPRI also might face a conflict of interest on some projects—because its member companies tend to support R&D efforts that serve their own narrow interests. As a related matter, some observers consider EPRI’s track record mixed, in terms of widespread industry deployment of the technologies it has produced.

• The GRI Model: Some industry models that proved effective in the past might guide a new national effort in clean energy RD&D. Ernest J. Moniz, professor of physics and director of the Laboratory on Energy and the Environment at MIT, and former Undersecretary of the Department of Energy during the Clinton Administration, points to the Gas Research Institute (GRI) as