Clean Energy Research, Development Should Remain A Focus

EDFEditor’s Note: EarthTechling is proud to repost this article courtesy of Environmental Defense Fund. Author credit goes to Jackie Roberts.

“The changing energy landscape and the resulting trade opportunities it affords will continue to provide consumers with more choices, more value, more wealth and more good jobs.” – ExxonMobil Energy Outlook, 12/12/12

I agree with Exxon.

We are moving closer to energy independence. But, even as the U.S. is facing a boom in natural gas, the only way we’ll reach our goal is if we don’t shortchange alternative energy research and development.  Changing the energy landscape must include rapid advances in zero carbon energy technologies, for very good reasons that are in danger of being overlooked in the fiscal cliff negotiations.

Solar and wind power

image via Shutterstock

First, despite its great promise, we should remember that important questions remain about the health and environmental impacts of natural gas operations. The extraction and distribution of natural gas can result in the release of methane – the main ingredient in natural gas and a greenhouse gas many times more potent than carbon dioxide.  Due to the many possible escape routes for methane into the atmosphere, the true carbon footprint of natural gas is uncertain right now, and we need to diversify our energy portfolio and avoid getting locked into an over-reliance on one energy source.

Second, micro-grids will be increasingly important in a world with more storms, flooding, and other “weird weather.” We must be prepared for that scenario. Alternative energy and smart grid solutions can be more resilient, if designed properly. The current model of a large, centralized energy plant is increasingly problematic.

Third, alternative energy offers enormous potential for economic development, exports, and even savings on energy bills. As just one example, look at the Department of Energy’s investments into fuel cells.  According to theClean Energy Patent Growth Index, more clean energy patents are associated with fuel cell technologies than with any other clean energy technology, with over 950 fuel cell patents issued in 2011. Fuel cell durability has doubled, expensive platinum content has been reduced by a factor of five, and the cost of fuel cells has fallen 80% since 2002. With DOE support, 36 commercial technologies have entered the global market as of this past fall.

These advances can benefit communities across the country.  Tulare, California invested in molten carbonate fuel cells for its wastewater treatment plant; this plant now produces about 45% of the electricity needed to run the plant which translates into a savings of more than $1 million per year (not to mention 6,200 tons less COper year).  With over 16,500 wastewater treatment plants in the U.S., communities could find enormous savings and build more resilience — if access to other fuel source is interrupted or electricity goes down, the plant can continue to partially operate and provide critical services to the community.

Talk about more choices and more value for communities, and more wealth and more good jobs for suppliers of fuel cells.

Environmental Defense Fund focuses on environmental problems where our expertise is most urgently needed. Is it a scientifically important challenge, not being addressed by others? Does it have the potential for transformational change? Are market-based solutions the most effective response? For most of our work, the answer to all three questions is "Yes."