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 October 2007 

Lawrence P. Farrell Jr.Energy: One Big Thing

October 2007

By Lawrence P. Farrell Jr.

U.S. Ambassador to Sweden Michael M. Wood is passionate about energy. He is particularly ardent about ways to make more efficient use of energy, as well as cleaner and more renewable forms of energy.

Ambassador Wood, to his credit, has named energy-related collaborations between Sweden and the United States as his “One Big Thing.”

Having spent nearly a year a half in Sweden, he has had the opportunity to see what the Swedes have been doing about energy. He finds much to applaud. Since 1990, their emissions are down by 7 percent, while their gross domestic product has risen by 36 percent. Since 1970, Sweden’s oil consumption has decreased by 47 percent, and its use of bioenergy is up by 60 percent. The bio-powered SAAB automobile constituted approximately 80 percent of auto sales last year in Sweden. And there are a number of technology firms in Sweden with good ideas, and looking for capital. This past April, Ambassador Wood brought a list of 30 Swedish companies to Silicon Valley as he met with top U.S. venture capitalists. The technologies on that list impressed many of the financiers, who asked Wood to organize a tour so they could visit these firms and see their technologies first-hand.

Wood likes to point out that the Swedes have a solid track record of bringing innovation into the automotive industry. Their major contributions, he says, are the seat belt and the catalytic converter. He is now hopeful that in the list of technologies he compiled is the “seat belt of alternative energy.”

In June, the United States and Sweden entered a formal arrangement on alternative energy cooperation. This agreement will focus on biomass production, liquid biofuels, efficient engines, standardization of engines and fuels, emission allowances and trading, and other forms of renewable energy.

This agreement is consistent with President Bush’s invitation to major world economies to seek a global agreement on goals and strategies to improve energy security worldwide.

All of the foregoing cooperation is consistent with the president’s technology goals in the areas of battery research, commercialization of cellulosic ethanol by 2012, making wind the source of 20 percent of U.S. power production, and a reduction in the cost of solar power, which currently leads all other forms of energy production at 40 cents per kilowatt hour.

A white paper on Ambassador Wood’s “One Big Thing” can be found on the website of the U.S. Embassy in Stockholm. (http://stockholm.usembassy.gov/Environment/index.html)

There is also much happening on the U.S. side. Recently, Tony Tether, director of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, cited alternative energy — to reduce military reliance on petroleum — as one of DARPA’s top priorities. The agency’s focus is on portable, efficient, compact power sources. This has led to research into solid oxide fuel cells. Other areas are high efficiency solar cells and biofuels, in an effort to develop an affordable surrogate for military JP-8 fuel. Research is ongoing with oil-rich crops like rapeseed and other plants. Algae, fungi and bacteria are areas of investigation.

Other U.S. agencies are also big on energy initiatives. The Army estimates that energy costs constitute 11 percent of its installation’s budgets. The Army’s strategy is to increase energy efficiency in new and renovated facilities, reduce fossil fuel dependence, conserve water and improve energy security. The Army is focusing strongly on renewables.

The Air Force has calculated that 82 percent of its energy use is in aviation. Its objectives are to reduce demand, increase supply and change the culture. It is looking to science and technology to aid in achieving these goals. One initiative, which has received widespread media coverage, is the production of aviation fuel from coal.

As one looks across the energy landscape, there is much activity and exciting research underway. Also, there is some convergence on ideas and approaches.

Energy experts predict that world peak oil production will occur sometime before 2025. The Energy Information Administration, for example, forecasts the peak in 2016.

As one looks at the statistics, one sees worldwide energy demand climbing and supplies, while tight now, becoming even tighter. Projections show that the United States will import 60 percent of its petroleum by 2025.

It seems evident, too, that no one solution or technology will suffice. What will be needed is a portfolio of new sources and programs to reduce and redirect demand. The U.S. military recognizes the problems and has initiated research and programs to address them.

Commercial transportation alternatives will present some choices — some of which come from civilian programs. And it is certain that military technology research will rapidly move into commercial products.

The broader issue of energy is a national concern. And it is the number-one long-term issue that will shape the U.S. economy and our nation’s security. It will require a concerted effort by both private sector and military researchers. Let’s keep our eye on this “One Big Problem.”

Please e-mail your comments to LFarrell@ndia.org

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