The complex nature of our energy future was evident in a recent announcement by the National Energy Technology Laboratory (NETL). NETL announced $4.4 million in new research funding for Solid Oxide Fuel Cell Research. The two primary areas of research are electrochemical performance enhancement and improvements to the durability of cathode materials. Said the NETL in its announcement of this research:
The SOFCs (solid oxide fuel cells) under development within SECA (Solid State Energy Conversion Alliance) are ideal for use in central generation applications, enabling efficient and economical systems for up to 99 percent carbon capture. They also emit practically no pollutants (nitrogen oxides and sulfur oxides) while consuming approximately one-third less water than other advanced power generation technologies. Power plants based on SECA fuel cells and coal gasifiers—units that turn solid coal into gaseous fuel—will generate power with overall efficiencies greater than 50 percent, compared to approximately 25 percent for traditional coal-fired power plants, including CO2 capture processes.
Renewables like wind and solar offer the advantage of a low carbon footprint when compared with traditional fossil fuels. Among their disadvantages are relatively high costs when compared with traditional fossil sources of energy like oil and their intermittent availability. That is why I have previously written about the importance of improved energy storage research (see Energy Storage: Advances in Research) if renewables are to gain much ground in our complex mix of energy sources.
Moreover, oil and coal remain readily available for the foreseeable future. Our reliance on another fossil fuel, natural gas, is increasing rapidly with its widespread availability. Its increased use is made possible through American technology that is making fracking safe and reliable. With a lower carbon footprint and declining prices, natural gas is also increasingly becoming the fuel of choice for the generation of electricity used by those new electric vehicles. But research like that supported by NETL could make coal a more acceptable source of energy as well.
The role of research is significant in not only how it advances our technology but in what it conveys about the complex energy map that we confront on the 21st century. Having relied primarily in the 20th century on oil, coal and more traditional and ancient sources of energy, the 21st century is likely to appear very different at its close. It will not, however, be a century of dramatic change. Fossil fuels are just too inexpensive still and too widely available for that to change. Moreover, developing countries are aggressively increasing their use of these valuable sources of energy.
While this century is already shaping up to be different from the last in our increased use of renewable energy sources, the mix of their use along with fossil fuels in the latter years of this century will fundamentally depend on the extent to which technology makes renewables cheaper, energy storage more reliable, and fossil fuels cleaner. Research has already made natural gas the choice for a cleaner fuel from which to generate electricity. It is likely as well to alter whether coal can be used without some of the atmospheric carbon and health-related aerosol issues that have been raised about it. Much of our complex energy usage depends on our commitment to continued funding of sound research – by government and business.