Why We Need a Quadrennial Energy Review

By Julio Friedmann

On good days, when I'm more optimistic about achieving our needs in climate and energy, I imagine that we as a country or globe will wake up and realize we need to clean our room (see last blog entry).

If so, we need a plan.

Many people discuss this undertaking as something akin to the Apollo project or the Manhattan project. I rather think those are the wrong metaphors. In both those other projects, there was only one client (the US government), the physics was fairly straightforward, and market forces didn't matter. In energy and climate, the situation is opposite. Everyone's a customer, the systems are complicated and non-linear, and all energy and environmental technology competes in the global market.

A better analogy may be the Marshall Plan, which rebuilt post-war Europe. It laid out goals over time and spent tons of money transforming systems in disrepair, with little immediate direct benefit to the US taxpayer. It was controversial, driven by a moral compass and some sobering economics. It required time, money, and focus.

But it started with a plan.

For the most part, we can generally agree as a nation or globe on a few framing goals:

-- Reduce our dependence on imported oil.
-- Reduce pollution.
-- Reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
-- Improve energy efficiency.
-- Have a reliable, resilient infrastructure.

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However, goals are not a plan. Even timetables and targets (85% reduction by 2050) do not make a plan. To get there, the nation needs three things we lack.

First, the U.S. needs internal agreement on the specifics of our goals. While many may agree that we would benefit to reduce oil imports, that's as far as we typically get. How many barrels imported by what date? Should we be only 20% imports by 2050? How much should be achieved through efficiency standards versus established technology (diesel) versus new supplies (compressed natural gas or coal-to-liquids). The same thing is for greenhouse gas emissions (what are good targets for 2030 or 2050?) or efficiency targets (2% improvement per year? 4% which sectors?). Ultimately, Congress will choose the menu and set the table.

Second (and more importantly), the US needs a program management plan to achieve its goals. Project management 101 -- what's the budget, timetable, milestones, and deliverables? This requires an understanding or priorities, staging, and contingency. What must be done by when? If we run into trouble in 2020, how do we decide on alternate plans? How many wind turbines, solar panels, nuclear plants, or clean coal plants? Why? This kind of program management plan requires concrete metrics and scientifically defensible decisions.

This takes us to the third point: we need a political consensus on the priority and willingness to pay for those goals. The immense project plan should be scientific, credible, and detailed or else the third piece never materializes. It should also be humble to the extent that we will expect regular course corrections, new technologies, and changing priorities even if our goals do not change.

Such planning approaches are well suited to the military. In defense matters, the goals of the U.S. are well articulated, scientific, and heavily discussed. In fact, we do this every four years -- it's the Quadrennial Defense Review (QRD). We as a nation map out defense goals and priorities every four years, and the plan is largely supported by both Congress and the country. The Department of Homeland Security does the same (note -- these are expensive -- the QDR costs about $150M and 18 months to do).

So, why not a quadrennial energy review -- a QER?

At least two groups think this makes sense. One is the American Energy Innovation Council, led by Bill Gates and including Jeff Immelt, Ursula Burns, and other key innovators and CEOs. The second is the President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology. Both groups suggest that trying to articulate these goals and creating a project plan are worthy of the U.S. (as was the Marshall Plan).

Ultimately, well articulated goals are required. However, it's still worth starting in the absence of these goals, because technology can also help drive policy decisions. One start was announced last month: Secretary of Energy Steven Chu announced a Quadrennial Technology Review led by his Undersecretary of Science Steve Koonin (read more here and here). This effort has the potential to lay the foundation for a QER, and can hopefully stimulate decision makers in industry and government to drive towards concrete goals and a plan.

And not a moment too soon. I want my two children (ages 8 and 6) to grow up in a world with coral reefs and polar bears. That'll take the U.S. and China working together to make steep emissions reductions. China has a five-year plan that includes these issues. One can also imagine a plan that suits our needs as a nation.

P.S. It has been a tremendous pleasure to blog here. My deepest thanks and appreciation to Jim Fallows for the honor, and to Justin Miller and John Hendel for their help and guidance.

Julio Friedmann is the Carbon Management Program Leader for Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, and the technical leader for the clean coal consortium under the U.S.-China Clean Energy Research Center.