Founded in the 1940s as part of the Manhattan Project, the Oak Ridge National Laboratory is located in east Tennessee. When first established, the lab's goal was to develop processing techniques for enriching uranium and developing plutonium for the making of an atomic bomb.

Following success at that, the lab's emphasis shifted. Today it is the largest multipurpose science and energy technology laboratory around. And good thing it is, said Thomas King, Jr., manager of the lab's Electric Delivery Technologies Program.

“I believe energy is the number one challenge facing humanity,” said King at the LSU AgCenter-sponsored AgOutlook 2008 Conference in Monroe, La., in late February. “I've heard the argument, ‘No, it's food or water.’ I argue back, ‘No. Actually, we have enough water. We must convert it efficiently and that takes energy. For everything we do, the foundation is energy.’”

King claimed energy is the principal driver for environment and climate change, national security, the economy, and quality of life.

Context and challenges

To tackle energy needs, King proposed a mass effort “something like we had back in the 1960s — a mission to the moon. We really need to focus our attention and put our efforts and resources into solving the energy challenges we're facing.”

Climate change is happening, said King. “There may be a debate about what's causing it. But regionally, I think we're seeing clear impacts. In the Southeast and Southwest, there have been major drought conditions. In the Midwest, there have been major floods.”

The droughts are impacting the nation's energy infrastructure at the same time it is aging and needs an overhaul.

“There has been an under-investment in the past three decades and congestion continues to impact reliable power. That was (evident) in 2003 with the blackouts. And there are other blackouts occurring globally that we don't hear a lot about. But in Canada and Germany there are major issues with supplying (enough energy).

“When we look at international energy production and consumption, there's a lot of talk about growth in China and India. The GDP growth has been 10 percent in China over the last few years. Their trade surplus in 2005 was $100 billion — three times what it was in 2004. That can have significant impact on global energy as well as the environment.”

At home

Meanwhile, the United States continues to consume more energy than it produces.

“Looking at transportation, it doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out what's going on. It's Economics 101 — supply and demand. A lot of people ask ‘When will prices stop rising?’ My response is ‘When it hurts too much to keep the status quo.’”

The United States consumes 140 billion gallons of gasoline annually. That's about 25 percent of the global oil supply “whereas we only have about 3 percent to 6 percent of the oil reserves on the planet.”

What would it take to be oil independent? It turns out a recent study “came up with a metric for independence: oil dependence costs of less than 1 percent of GDP. Preliminary analysis says that could be a pretty good metric. (To get there) we need about a third increase in supply and a third decrease in demand.

“And we can do that through two things: fuel switching (carbon, hydrogen, electricity) and efficiency gains (propulsion options and vehicle systems).”

While better vehicle efficiency is great, that alone will have a limited impact on becoming energy independent. Alternative energy sources will be key.

“We hear a lot of talk about (things like having 25 percent of the nation's energy supplied by renewable sources by 2025). Those are great goals and give us something to shoot for. Let's pick one and go for it.”

Such targets are hard to hit, but biofuels will play a leading role in each.

“The ‘Billion Ton Study’ was done by the Oak Ridge lab and USDA to see if domestic land resources are capable of producing a sustainable amount of biomass. They wanted to know if we can replace 30 percent of petroleum consumption by 2030.

“The study actually shows that through forest residue and agricultural resources, that mark can be hit. But the study doesn't show the impacts on food and fuel and impacts on forestry.”

Looking at feedstocks, “a lot of work is going into genetic research. Can we make plants — bioenergy crops — that are resistant to drought, tolerant to disease and insects? How do we approach recalcitrance? How do we break down the plant cell walls more effectively?

“Then, we must look at the conversion process. I like to call this ‘how do we brew a better beer?’ There are many efficiencies that need to be gained in that process in order to make it cost effective and viable.”

Like Saudi Arabia

Alternative energy sources can also be used by the industrial sector. “Unconventional oils and biomass can go through gasification processes and these can be used for feedstocks for chemicals, for hydrogen production and other products.”

Another option for increasing the energy supply is unconventional oils.

“Canada is considered the Saudi Arabia of tar sands. The U.S. is considered the Saudi Arabia of oil shale. That is basically oil within a rock. To get it the rock must be heated up. The challenge is it takes a lot of energy to heat up rock.”

A process is being tested “looking at drilling holes straight into the shale and basically heating it up. Over a few years, the shale can be converted and oil can be extracted.”

While oil is gathered, the energy required is “pretty dramatic and there are concerns with what resources will be used … If coal, people say it's just exacerbating the problem because of significant carbon emissions.”

King also pointed to the nation's burgeoning fleet of fuel-flexible vehicles. “Saab is taking an interesting approach. The next product they're putting out isn't just a hybrid-electric vehicle, but a bio-powered hybrid electric vehicle. It takes the bio-power and puts in some batteries. It's important because I see a convergence ahead of the transportation system with the electricity delivery system.

“People will plug in their hybrid electric vehicle. It'll charge overnight and if, after driving it, the charge runs out, there's liquid fuel to keep going.

“It's a good concept and a lot of people are saying it makes a lot of sense. If you look at the electricity/gasoline equivalent, electricity is about a quarter to half as expensive as a gallon of gas.”

Utilities like the concept because at night they have a lot of generation available. “They're able to fill in those valleys.”

Among the many limitations: Currently 90 percent of lithium ion battery manufacturers are in Japan with the rest in China. “The capacity for manufacturing lithium ion batteries globally is about 45,000 modules for automotive applications. We could get about 20,000 cars out of that.”

To illustrate the convergence of the transportation and electricity sectors, King showed a night map of world. Unsurprisingly, the best-lit regions were the United States and Western Europe.

“We'll continue to see more (lights come on) in India and China. Interestingly, in 2005, there were 120 gigawatts of generation under construction. China is installing about one power plant per week. The amount of power and generating capacity going in is remarkable.

“And we'll see more electrification of Third World countries. The question is what that will cost the globe because 75 percent of the technologies being used are just traditional, coal-fired plants.”

Electricity

Currently, electricity makes up 45 percent of our energy consumption. Renewable energy sources are a long way from providing cost relief. There are targets to get the cost of renewable systems, such as photovoltaics, down to price parity with other forms of electricity generation by 2015.

“Today, renewables cost a lot. There's a lot of great potential, but the intermittency challenges and costs have to be overcome.”

Right now, co-firing biomass is the least-cost option. While working in the utility sector, King said, “we tried co-firing biomass and did some demonstrations. It was great and there were economic savings.”

However, doing so can open an operation up to regulatory oversight. “EPA says we must have a permit and that presents all kinds of other issues. Co-firing is an option, but it's very limited until we (find) other processing techniques.”

Wind is also becoming more economically viable. But once the sweet spots for wind are employed, “it'll be more challenging. How do we more effectively and efficiently convert lower-speed winds into power?”

King believes energy policies will “really shift and promote the renewables and that'll help overcome some of the economic hurdles. When we look at multiple resources available, it becomes very regional. In the Southwest it's renewables. In the upper Midwest there's a lot of wind. In the Southeast, there's a lot of natural gas, nuclear and biomass.”

But looking at the map, “all the generation resources aren't necessarily close to the loads. That's going to place an additional burden on the electrical grid.”

Buildings, which use some 2.5 billion barrels of oil annually, could prove a big factor in reducing consumption. They use about 65 percent of the electricity in the United States and produce about 30 percent of the greenhouse gas emissions.

Going forward

To achieve energy independence, King repeatedly spoke on the need for leadership and sustaining “a real effort. I'm of the opinion that if we're going to do this we need a concerted effort — something (akin) to putting a man on the moon.”

Unfortunately, to meet such a challenge, the energy research and development funding “is pretty low. Back in the late 1970s and early 1980s, it was at peak and has dropped since. I'd argue we're seeing times like we saw back then. But the future contains many more challenges.”

Whatever happens, “biofuels will play a key role in our future. But there is no silver bullet.”