MOUNTAIN VIEW, Calif. -- Moving away from fossil fuels will only take four things: time, money, technological advances and a calibrated judgment about what projects should be pursued.

"The commonly invoked silver bullet is the wrong way to look it. We have limited time and limited resources," said Steve Koonin, undersecretary for science Department of Energy, at the Western Energy Summit at NASA Ames in Mountain View, Calif. "We cannot let 1,000 flowers bloom indiscriminately."

"The deployment of inefficient feel-good technologies is doubly bad," he added, because they give the illusion of progress and divert resources from promising projects. Manhattan Project metaphors are distracting, and have involved making "a few gadgets" for one customer in complete secrecy with an almost unlimited budget (see Why We Don't Want a Manhattan Project).

When Koonin speaks, it's worthwhile to listen. He served in various positions at Caltech for decades before becoming the chief scientist at oil giant BP. While at BP, he was one of the key figures in creating the $500 million biofuel research institute between BP, the University of California, Lawrence Berkeley Lab and the University of Illinois. His counterpart on the academic side was Energy Secretary Steve Chu.

So how do these principles work in practice? The Department of Energy, investors and companies will have to balance the technological potential of projects against their commercial readiness and cost. Ultimately, this may mean that the world may move at a more conservative pace than might be necessary. "We only get one chance" to rebuild the energy infrastructure, he noted. Still, progress on energy security and emissions can occur.

In the transportation sector, one of the first moves could revolve around inserting tested, existing technologies – homogenous charge compression of ignition engines, selected cylinder deactivation – to improve mileage. Biofuels, potentially, might come next.

"Beyond these steps there will be electrification," he said. "The pace will be driven by advances in storage technologies and their costs."

The U.S. imports approximately $600 million a day in oil, said Koonin.

In power generation, coal is a fact of life. "It is not going to disappear anytime soon although it is the most carbon laden of fuels," he said. As a result, more effort needs to be put into carbon capture and storage. Above-ground sequestration has been demonstrated, he noted. The next stage will be implementing it. Below-ground capture and storage has to be demonstrated. Laws, regulations and social attitudes toward sequestration will also have to be established.

Nuclear fission? "It is a proven technology," he said. "If the world wants to seriously address emissions, nuclear will almost certainly have to be part of the picture."

In the meantime, wind and solar will grow in the background. Wind now accounts for around 2 percent of U.S. electricity. That's up from 0.8 percent in the recent past. Wind could get up to 20 percent of U.S. power "but I don't see how it could get higher than that," he added.

Scientists will also have to better communicate why these issues are important. The DOE has to take the blame in part for the difficulties in getting funding for a network of labs. "We did not do a very good job explaining it to Congress," he said.

Will humanity make it? One audience member asked for Koonin's opinions about the great extinction events that have occurred in Earth's history and how more are linking those extinctions to climate changes.

"One of the things I loved in retrospect most about being a professor was being able to say what I wanted," Koonin said. "Next question." 

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