National Academies panel urges overhaul of energy policies

By Christa Marshall | 09/08/2016 01:10 PM EDT

The United States needs to put a price on carbon dioxide and other pollutants and overhaul energy policies to help avoid catastrophic climate change and other public health calamities, according to a report released today by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine.

The United States needs to put a price on carbon dioxide and other pollutants and overhaul energy policies to help avoid catastrophic climate change and other public health calamities, according to a report released today by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine.

The multiyear analysis concludes that policies must change for nearly every energy technology, from nuclear power to solar photovoltaics. Otherwise, prices won’t fall enough with clean energy sources to be deployed at levels needed to curb pollution, concludes the report, which was funded by the Department of Energy and included contributions from multiple universities, companies and nonprofits. Multiple U.S. senators requested the study.

"There are notable locations where unsubsidized wind and solar-generated electricity is competitive with or cheaper than electricity from other sources. Yet for most of the country, most of the time, the prices of dirtier incumbent electric power generation technologies are lower than those of increasing clean technologies, in part because their price does not include their full costs," says the report, "The Power of Change."


The researchers did not outline what a price on pollution should look like to fix this "error," or whether it should be a carbon tax or some other mechanism. They did call for more funding on research and development broadly and outline more than 30 other specific recommendations that Congress and federal agencies could enact to help multiple technologies, whether mature or still in the lab stage.

Wide adoption of clean energy technologies and changes to the electrical grid will require moving beyond "incremental" improvements, said the academies.

For carbon capture and sequestration, for example, Congress should direct U.S. EPA to establish performance standards for the transport and long-term storage of captured CO2 and set up a plan to govern underground storage sites once they have been closed, the academies said. That could help bring more demonstration projects online; there currently is only one coal plant operating globally that captures the majority of its emissions.

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission should publish a new rule on the licensing of advanced reactors and push for more international cooperation on testing and deploying advanced technologies, according to the researchers.

For efficiency, DOE should set standards for appliances at the highest level that is feasible and economically justified, and work with organizations setting national "model" energy codes so they consider energy use. The department should invest more in new technologies and behavioral strategies, too, researchers said.

For renewables, the academies called on DOE and the national labs to provide more technical support to states and utilities to identify and standardize "best practices" such as power purchase agreement contracts and renewable energy certificates. That "could align regional policies to enable more consistent and efficient markets," the report says.

Increasing energy storage also will be critical, said Charles Holliday, chairman of the board at Royal Dutch Shell PLC and the committee preparing the report.

Subsidies should be tied to performance of a technology and include sunset provisions such as the ones that apply to tax credits for solar and wind, the report adds. "Many subsidies for oil and natural gas have no sunset provisions," the academies said.

The academies also made multiple recommendations to bring promising, early stage technologies to market. For example, 20 percent of funding from the small business investment company program should be used for venture capital for clean energy technologies, it said. The program is run by the U.S. Small Business Administration to move capital to small companies.

Many scientists say current emissions targets pledged by countries are not enough to avoid dangerous global warming. The challenge is exacerbated by the scheduled retirement of nuclear power plants, which were the largest source of low-carbon electricity in the United States last year.

The pledge last year from Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates to lead other billionaire investors in backing new technologies to fight climate change spawned extensive debate about whether their focus on energy miracles was the right approach (ClimateWire, Dec. 4, 2015). Some said it would be better to focus on deploying mature technologies like solar, as the world is making a lot of decisions now that will lock in emissions for decades.

The report adds to the debate by calling for more attention on the "intermediate" stage between lab research and commercial products. "Large scale deployment alone is unlikely to produce cost breakthroughs or technological improvements," the academies said. Working with the private sector "further down the line" after a product leaves the lab will be necessary, said Holliday.

To do that, there should be more "road mapping" from the Department of Energy to ensure pilot projects have clear missions, according to the academies. That means the federal government would stop supporting technologies that don’t meet goals and standards after a period of time.

"You pull the plug, so to speak," said Paul Beaton, senior program officer at the National Academies and the study’s director.

The department also should assess current simulation and testing capabilities available for new technologies, and identify how to fill gaps where they exist, according to the report. Many companies with promising technologies can’t afford testing products to move them beyond the lab stage, Holliday said.

Giving more company access to the national labs and other testing facilities "will break down barriers," he said. DOE has been moving in this direction via programs like its Small Business Vouchers program (Greenwire, Aug. 19).

Holliday said one statistic jumped out at him to demonstrate how far the country needs to go, despite the surges in recent years of low-carbon technologies. Wood produces about the same percentage of electricity — 1 percent — as solar, he said.

"That should be a wakeup call," he said.