Report Says Vehicle Fuel Should Be the Priority, Not Electricity

By MATTHEW L. WALD
 
Department of EnergyThe nation’s persistent reliance on oil poses long-term hazards, an analysis says.

Research on solar and wind power is all well and good, but a self-assessment by the Department of Energy has found that in the great scheme of energy needs, the government is not investing enough in transportation energy, an area in which those renewable power sources do not play a role.

“Reliance on oil is the greatest immediate threat to U.S. economic and national security, and also contributes to the long-term threat of climate change,’’ its analysis, released on Tuesday morning, states.

The report emphasizes the need to replace oil rather than fuels like coal and natural gas, which are supplanted by electricity-generating solar and wind power. (There is very little oil used to generate electricity in the United States.)

And in the quest to replace oil, work on electric vehicles should be prioritized over alternative fuels, the study said.

The report is the first of what are intended to be quadrennial reviews of the department’s research work.

Nearly 90 percent of the energy sector is owned and operated by the private sector, said Steven E. Koonin, the Energy Department’s undersecretary for science. The department should therefore be convening the various interested parties to encourage agreements, and provide technical information, he said in a statement.

The department is also underinvested in the power grid, the report said, yet the country will need a more robust grid to make fuller use of renewable energy.

By law, basic decisions about the transmission grid are made not by the Energy Department but by others, including state agencies, federal agencies like the Interior Department, and the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.

The report is an effort to take into account the potential of various technologies and the likelihood of commercializing them. While performing such an assessment seems sensible, the department’s priorities are sometimes not set by judgments on science and engineering.

For example, Steven Chu, the energy secretary, who holds a Nobel prize in physics, has said repeatedly that investment in fuel cells is probably not as good a bet as investment in other areas. But Congress has pressed to keep fuel cell research in place.

With help from the Energy Department, the cost of fuel cells has been reduced by four-fifths in recent years, according to the report, but “significant further improvements in key technologies remain to be demonstrated to meet program goals.’’

By contrast, hybrid electric vehicles, plug-in hybrids and pure electric vehicles are “currently economically superior” and are improving rapidly, the report says.

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