November 30, 1999

Read This Now: Quadrennial Technology Review

I was riding my bike on Ohio Drive near West Potomac Park on
Sunday and saw the Department of Energy’s (DOE) Solar Decathlon, which reminded me
that DOE just published its first Quadrennial
Technology Review
. The what, you ask? Yes, you’re reading that right: Quadrennial Technology Review (QTR).

During this
time of hard budget choices and fiscal challenge, we must ensure that our work
is impactful and efficient
,” Secretary of Energy Steven Chu writes in the
opening message of the review. “The question we face is: ‘How should the
Department choose among the many technically viable activities it could
pursue?’ This first Quadrennial Technology Review (QTR), launched at the
recommendation of the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and
Technology, lays out the principles I believe must guide these difficult

What’s notable about the review, according to Secretary Chu,
is that it provides a framework for multi-year investments. This is critical in
helping viable technologies scale up by providing a sustained demand signal
from DOE that may give the private sector some added comfort in making capital
investments in technology.  “Energy
investments are multi-year, multi­-decade investments,” Secretary Chu acknowledges.
“Given this time horizon, we need to take a longer view.”

The review provides a pretty solid primer on the energy
landscape and the challenges that the United States faces. “An effective U.S.
portfolio of technologies and policies to address these challenges must be
based on three global realities,” the review states. These realities include:
the choices that we make today about long-term infrastructure (i.e., the
efficiency of buildings, etc.) will shape global energy consumption through the
end of the century; to stabilize global carbon dioxide emissions (“the dominant
anthropogenic GHG [greenhouse gas]”) in the long-term, energy technologies will
have to be greener in the near-term given that the greenhouse gases emitted today
impact the world tomorrow; and as global oil consumption increases, future
crude prices and price volatility will increase sharply as the world depletes
access to “easy” crude oil (i.e., cheaper and easier to access onshore

The review goes on to explain some of the more direct energy
security challenges the United States faces, including the implications for an
economy that relies on oil to transport goods globally and the future of American
economic competitiveness as other states race ahead of us to become energy
technology leaders.

The technology section itself is a fascinating read and
covers everything from alternative hydrocarbon fuels (like algae-based
biofuels), energy efficiency in buildings and electric grid modernization
(including cyber security challenges).

One of the areas I wish the review had explored more is
biofuels; specifically the cost of producing biofuels today and the time
horizon for scaling up biofuels to meet price parity with conventional petroleum.
This is an analytical area that’s challenging to find greater fidelity, and expectedly
so given that future prices are contingent on a range of uncertain economic trends
(e.g., sustained investment in biofuels production).

In general, the review provides an excellent overview of the
energy challenges we face, the choices we have to address those challenges and
the work that must be done to bolster our energy security. I strongly recommend
taking an hour to read through it. It promises to have something for everyone.

Photo: Cover image of
Quadrennial Technology Review. Courtesy
of the Department of Energy.