As I had stated in an earlier blog, occasionally I will address energy issues as well as teaching and learning in higher education. After all, research universities represent major players in the development of innovation, and they have the potential through technology transfer to contribute significantly to the marketplace via licensing of those technologies to commercial enterprises.
The importance of university research was emphasized once again as the Department of Energy released its strategic plan for 2012. The plan positions university research as critical to the nation’s energy security. In the plan, Secretary Chu observes, “The Department of Energy plays an important and unique role in the U.S. science and technology community. The Department’s missions and programs are designed to bring the best scientific minds and capabilities to bear on important problems.” As this blog has argued in the past, we need far more excellent, college-educated graduates to meet our anticipated needs for human capital. We also need new technologies that will enable the US to have a secure, clean supply of energy for the benefit of all US citizens; we need new technology for the sake of our economic development and for quality of life. R&D play a central role in the development of that technology.
President Obama has set goals of reducing greenhouse emissions by 7% by 2020, deriving 80% of our electricity from clean sources of energy by 2035, and putting one million electric-powered vehicles on the road by 2015. Achieving these goals depends upon innovation that leads to new technology. Developing and increasing technologies that make renewable energy more efficient and affordable is one means to move toward those goals. Another is to devise new sources of safe, clean and affordable energy. But 85% of global energy produced today continues to come from traditional fossil fuels like oil, coal and natural gas. Of the remaining 15% of energy produced, nuclear, biomass and hydro account for all but one percentage point of the total. To the surprise of many people, solar, geothermal and wind account for less than 1% of the total global supply of energy.
Our dependence upon fossil fuels makes clear that we will need new technologies that increase the efficient and affordable production of them if we are to realize the President’s goals. We will need the support of university research in developing new materials that reduce consumption of energy, in devising effective means to capture and sequester CO2, and in improving the flexibility, efficiency and security of the grid. The Department of Energy’s May strategic plan for 2012 rightfully points to the role of innovation in the form of R&D from our best scientific minds, and university research has the potential to play a critical role.