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Beyond the Price at the Pump:
A Comprehensive Energy Security Roadmap

Shirley Ann Jackson, Ph.D.
President, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute

Museum of Science and Industry
Chicago, Illinois

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Good evening.

I would like to thank the Museum of Science and Industry for their gracious invitation to speak this evening. I, also, thank the sponsors of "Science Chicago" and especially Jonathan F. Fanton, President of the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation who, along with Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley, saw the need to reinvigorate the culture of science and research in Chicago, to engage and inform the public, and to inspire Chicago's 700,000 children. The Science Chicago mission, to "awaken the inner scientist" in everyone, is more pertinent now than ever, as our nation, and our world, confront todayís myriad challenges, many of which sit at the intersection of science, technology, and public policyóglobal pandemics, HIV/AIDS, natural disasters, climate change, and global energy security.

The world certainly has changed in many – and dramatic – ways during the past few months. While the shifts seem sudden, most were years in the making, and many are the product of the flattening and interlinking of our world, in which the fates and fortunes of nations and economies rise and fall as one.

What began as a sub-prime mortgage lending crisis in the U.S., with concomitant falling real estate prices, was exacerbated by over-leveraged/globally-linked capital flows, complicated financial instruments, and, sometimes, less-than-transparent financial trading schemes. This created a credit collapse that has reverberated through the global economy. As growth has slowed, oil prices have fallen, as have prices for many commodities, because global demand has softened.

The United States faces a new – and more complex – economic future, in which past assumptions are no longer valid, and proposed solutions – for government, for financial institutions, for commerce and industry, and for people – are evolving almost daily.

Underlying economic weaknesses have brought us to the brink of a global recession. Indeed, last Friday the European Union declared that the 15 countries that use the euro are officially in a recession, as their economies shrank for a second straight quarter because of the world financial crisis and contracting demand. Japan, the worldís second largest economy, has declared that it is in a recession. China, the world growth leader, recently has announced its own economic stimulus package of 4-trillion-yuan ($586 billion dollars) to keep its Gross Domestic Product growth above 7 percent, by investing in infrastructure and social services. Such news from around the world makes it more evident than ever that global economies are inextricably interlinked and interconnected – i.e. that "the world is flat."

Given this shifting mosaic of difficulties, some have wondered whether energy security and climate change mitigation should take a backseat to pressing economic concerns.

But, the need for energy to fuel economies and to improve living standards has not gone away. The urgency of climate change is ever-present. Indeed, the interlinked challenges of energy security and climate change are a global economic security issue, and, for the U.S., a national security issue, as well.

But, there are opportunities inherent within these challenges – opportunities that can lead us to new prosperity, bolster our competitiveness, enhance our global leadership, and strengthen the global community. To be sure, within the naturally symbiotic relationship – of challenges to opportunities – may lie our best hope.

Indeed, on Tuesday, President-Elect Barak Obama indicated that he intends to move rapidly on climate change and new energy-saving technologies. He repeated his campaign promise to invest $150 billion in energy security research, and made clear that such investments would create jobs, advance renewable energy sources, help reverse global warming, and strengthen our national security.

This is welcome news. You may have read about vast "brown clouds" that are sweeping from the Arabian Peninsula, across India and parts of China, to the Yellow Sea. The noxious clouds are a mix of automobile exhaust, coal-fired power plant emissions, chemical industry effluents, and particulate matter from slash-and-burn agriculture, and dung and wood cooking fires. The clouds are blotting Asian skies, reducing sunlight, decreasing crop yields, altering weather patterns, and fouling the lungs of millions. These are critical problems. Climate change does not wait.

Many have been preparing for the time when our nation would tackle these issues. I am one of them. Throughout my career, I have maintained an interest and involvement in energy issues – both the scientific and technological aspects, as well as federal and state policy. Today, I am involved in a number of national and global initiatives in these arenas. They include the Brookings Institution Energy Security Roundtable, and the Task Force on Energy and Climate Change of the Council on Foreign Relations.

I have just returned from the World Economic Forum Summit on the Global Agenda in Dubai, where I was involved in setting the agenda for next January's World Economic Forum Annual Meeting in Davos, Switzerland. Energy security was high on the agenda.

I, also, lead the Energy Security, Innovation, and Sustainability Initiative (ESIS) of the U.S. Council on Competitiveness, along with co-chairs James W. Owens, Chairman and CEO of Caterpillar Inc., and D. Michael Langford, National President, Utility Workers Union of America, AFL-CIO. I, also, am the Council's University Vice-Chair.

The Council is a coalition of business, labor, and academic leaders focused on initiatives, policies, and actions which can grow our economy and help it to remain globally competitive, maintain our standard of living, and provide high wage jobs for Americans.

I will review some of the recommendations the Council has prepared, especially for the first 100 days of the new Administration, but first –


– to know where we are going we must know where we are. Let us examine the global context.

Uncertainty of energy supply, amplified demand, unpredictable price swings, and the impact of climate change have been major drivers of a global energy system restructuring. This restructuring continues, even in the present recessionary environment, and includes new forces, new players, and new alignments.

  1. New energy markets are developing worldwide, providing opportunity and options for new players.
  2. Supplier countries and their national oil companies are changing the terms of reference for traditional energy behemoths, especially with regard to oil and gas supply.
  3. Oil-generated wealth and central banks in developing countries are changing who plays in global financial markets.
  4. Nations are realigning, shifting old alliances.
  5. Corporations are realigning their priorities, changing how they do business, and making investments – obviously, to secure market opportunity, and to assure energy supply, but, also, to improve energy efficiency, and reduce their carbon footprint.
  6. Strategies for climate change mitigation and new markets, also, are driving new trading schemes, and investments in new sources and new technologies.

I will explore many of these elements, but to begin, I suggest that we change our language – that we move beyond the term "energy independence," to the term, "Energy Security." There is no energy independence. Of the approximately 190 countries in the world, not one is energy independent – nor is likely to be any time soon. Likewise, as the "brown cloud" example illustrates, neither are we independent from a climatic perspective. Indeed, energy security and climate change are inextricably interlinked.

New energy markets have emerged because worldwide energy consumption is being driven by population growth, developing economies, improving living standards, and new energy-dependent technologies. The growth in energy consumption in China, while slowing some with the economic downturn, will continue, because China's urban areas seeks to create 25 million jobs annually to absorb new job seekers and population migration to urban centers. China is expected to add at least 50,000 megawatts of electrical generating capacity each year – roughly the equivalent of the entire electrical grid of England. Indeed, the lion's share of the Chinese stimulus package will go to such infrastructure.

Consumption of nearly every major energy source has increased markedly. If recent trends continued, humans would use more energy over the next 50 years than in all of previously recorded history. And, despite climate change concerns, fossil-based energy sources, including coal, will remain a part of the primary energy mix for some time.

The original "seven sisters" – western companies that controlled Middle East oil after World War II – are losing prominence to a new set of seven. Saudi Aramco, Russia's Gazprom, China's CNPC, NIOC of Iran, Venezuela's PDVSA, Brazil's Petrobras, and Petronas of Malaysia control almost a third of the world's oil and gas production, and more than a third of its total reserves.

The old "seven sisters," which became four after mergers in the 1990s – Chevron, Exxon-Mobil, BP, and Royal Dutch Shell – produce about 10 percent of the worldís oil and gas, and hold just 3 percent of reserves. The International Energy Agency estimates that 90 percent of new production supplies, over the next four decades, will come from developing countries – a big shift from the past. This is leading supply countries, and their national oil companies, to change production-sharing contract terms with "traditional" international oil and gas companies, and to seek greater ownership of assets, and a greater share of revenues.

The emergence of the "sisters" from oil-rich countries has been the basis for the creation of Sovereign Wealth Funds (SWF). These are nation-owned entities that have used, primarily, oil revenues to accumulate and manage national funds for investment objectives. Worldwide, it is estimated that some $3 trillion has been assembled in SWFs, especially out of the Middle East. Before the recent downturn, this was projected to reach $7.5 to $11 trillion by 2013. These substantial funds, and their sovereign support, offer both challenges and opportunities for governments and corporations, and are changing behaviors between and among these entities.

The fact that many of the new "sisters" are state-owned, and that growth in the oil and gas industry rests in their hands, is restructuring national and international alliances, and will impact them for decades to come.

Russia has used its oil and gas abundance to lock up deals with European countries, even as there is concern that Russia is using its dominant energy position as a political tool.

For example: Gasunie, the Dutch National gas company, has taken a stake (9%) in the controversial Nord Stream Pipeline Project. The pipeline, controlled by Gazprom (the Russian gas monopoly), would carry gas directly from Russia, under the Baltic Sea, to Germany – bypassing Poland, Belarus, Ukraine, and the Baltic States. Some countries (the Baltic States in particular) have objected to the pipeline on the basis of environmental concerns. For others, such as Poland, it means a revenue loss (from transit fees). For still others, it can affect supply (Ukraine).

Although the deal is on track, Gasunie authorities say the global credit crisis is pushing up financing costs, and Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, last week, threatened to scrap the project altogether because of delays caused by EU lawmakers who have called for a new study of the pipeline's environmental impact. The deal, also, gives Gazprom the option to acquire, from Gasunie, a 9 percent stake in the Balgzand-Bacton pipeline, connecting the Netherlands and the U.K. This would give Gazprom a stake in a British supply pipeline for the first time.

Such moves reflect energy supply concerns in EU countries which import 80 percent of their oil and gas.

The invasion of Georgia by Russia last summer raised questions about the security of oil and gas pipelines through that former Soviet republic. The pipelines begin in Azerbaijan, passing through Georgia en route to ports on the Black Sea and the Mediterranean Sea, where tankers ship the crude primarily to Western Europe. The pipelines supply about 1 percent of the worldís daily oil needs, and are owned, in part, by BP, which shut down one line during the fighting, as a precaution. Although the lines were not damaged, the invasion, and the location of a Russian fleet off the Georgian coastline, successfully demonstrated that Russia could easily seize their control and emphasized Russia's growing influence in the region, and over Europe.

These realities have led the EU to develop strategies for new and renewable sources of energy and energy efficiency, both to assure supply through diversification, and to mitigate climate change.

China, too, has been on a worldwide march to lock up energy supplies to support its growing economy, as well as access to other resources such as minerals and heavy metals. This, especially, is seen in its presence in Africa where it trades infrastructure development, sometimes education, and diplomatic recognition and embassy presence for such access.

China, also, is projected to outpace the U.S. as the largest emitter of greenhouse gases and other pollutants within a couple of years. Therefore, it is important to help rapidly developing countries, like China, to gain energy efficiencies in manufacturing, and in products, while reducing their carbon footprint through the use of renewable and alternative energy sources. Multinational corporations are working with their Chinese suppliers to reduce costs by reducing energy use and carbon load, often employing new management techniques and new technologies.

More broadly, corporations worldwide are making capital investments in renewable energy technologies. A United Nations Environment Programme's Global Trends in Sustainable Energy Investment report found that investment capital flowing into sustainable energy sources (especially wind, solar, and biofuels) more than doubled in just two years – from $28 billion in 2004 to $71 billion in 2006. The International Energy Agency (IEA) estimates that as much as $16 trillion will be invested in the energy sector through 2030. Whether those projections will be borne out amid the global financial crisis remains to be seen.

Nevertheless, as we shape our national energy goals and strategies, we must understand and account for the restructuring of the global energy system, its impact on markets, and on international alignments.


Now, let us move to the national context.

The current economic downturn has led to a decrease in global energy demand, and a substantial reduction in crude oil prices. Gasoline prices have fallen dramatically since summer, and with a continued weak economy through 2009, and lower projected crude oil prices, they are expected to remain low. Total domestic petroleum consumption is projected to average 19.6 million barrels per day in 2008, down 1.1 million barrels per day, or 5.4 percent, from the 2007 average – the first time, since 1980, that annual total petroleum consumption is expected to decline by more than 1 million barrels per day.

We know that this will not continue indefinitely, so consider a single element of our dilemma: our dependence on imported oil. Although our consumption temporarily has fallen it remains above 19 million barrels of oil per day, and we produce just over 5 million.

An important question, then, is this: Is it feasible to reduce our petroleum consumption to match our domestic supply capacity?


Is it feasible to quadruple our oil producing capacity through exploration, and offshore drilling, and drilling in the Alaska National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR), through oil sands mining, and the like?

If quadrupling production is feasible, should we immediately execute a strategy to make it happen? And, how would we manage climate change?

If it is not feasible – or it is unwise – and we are concerned about climate change, then we must think differently and strategically about energy.

This challenge is not new. In 1973, President Nixon called for energy independence responding to the OPEC oil embargo. Project Independence lowered highway speeds, converted power plants to coal, prompted completion of the Trans-Alaskan pipeline, and diverted federal highway construction funds to mass transit.

The Ford Administration made attempts to secure our national oil supplyó the Strategic Petroleum Reserve was a notable accomplishment.

While President Carter's characterization of the energy problem as "the moral equivalent of war" was widely mocked, it produced a comprehensive National Energy Plan stressing conservation, renewable energy, and research. Though his program lost momentum, some proposals – such as building, appliance, and automobile fleet efficiency standards – were enacted and have endured – to our benefit.

The pattern of advance and retreat on energy policy has been repeated over the past several decades. Every few years, an event – the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, rolling brown outs in California, drill rig and refinery damage by Hurricane Katrina, sky-rocketing prices at the gasoline pumps, and so on – stirs attention, trepidation, and short-lived action.

Meanwhile, over the last 30 years, the U.S. has gone from importing a third of its oil in 1973 to importing nearly three-quarters today. The U.S. paid out $327 billion for oil imports last year, with significant economic consequence.

This time, we must get the goal right and find real, lasting solutions to the linked challenges of energy security and climate change. Not only must we reformulate our relationships to energy – as a nation, and as consumers – but, we must do so in a way that recognizes the impact of our choices and behaviors on the global climate.

In other words: It is about the planet.

We, also, must sustain and grow our economy by seizing the embedded economic opportunity inherent within this issue – by embracing the new technologies and industries that will emerge.

In September, the U.S. Council on Competitiveness, issued – and this month reaffirmed – a comprehensive energy security action agenda for the first 100 Days of our 44th President and the new Congress. The action plan asks that the new Administration and Congress:

  • Mandate that Federal procurement – for goods, services, new construction, and facilities retrofits – lead the market toward higher energy efficiency standards, with concomitant reduction of carbon load. Such leadership by example, and requirement, will encourage the private sector in this direction.
  • Equalize energy source subsidies to encourage the development and sustainable utilization of all energy sources; and create incentives for discovery, and the deployment of new energy sources.
  • Ramp up investment in energy research, development, and commercialization, by at least tripling the current federal investment in basic and applied energy research and development, as well as other measures to facilitate test-beds and commercial pilots.
  • Establish a $200 billion national "clean energy" bank, modeled on the U.S. Export-Import Bank and the Overseas Private Investment Corporation (OPIC), to provide long-term financing for private sector investment in sustainable energy solutions.
  • Mobilize an energy workforce by creating a $300 million "Clean Energy Workforce Readiness Program," and support advanced study by creating competitive, portable undergraduate and graduate fellowships for study in energy-related disciplines. This is a necessary part of maintaining and enhancing our national capacity for innovation by developing our own talent, including the underrepresented majority – women and under-represented minorities – while continuing to attract and retain exquisite talent from abroad.
  • Begin to create a National Electrical Transmission Superhighway by engaging state regulatory authorities in streamlining the current regulation/oversight patchwork for transmission within states, and between states, for better interoperability standards for the national grid, including incentives to model and simulate the characteristics of an intelligent, self-healing, electrical grid, with the ability to connect multiple distributed new energy sources and devices to the system.

These actions get us started and, generally, are based on the key elements of a comprehensive energy security roadmap.


What are those key elements or underlying principles that will yield optimum results.

But, first, what is energy security? I define energy security as having an adequate and sustainable supply of energy to meet the needs and aspirations of citizens, commercial enterprises, and public sector functions, and to provide that supply in as environmentally benign a way as possible. Of course, in practice, specific strategies for achieving energy security vary according to nation and region.

For the United States, a comprehensive energy security roadmap should adhere to six basic principles:

  • First – redundancy of supply and diversity of source – This entails maximizing domestic production and ensuring reliable sources for necessary energy imports. This provides protection against supply disruption events, such as natural disasters or geopolitical instability, and a hedge against price volatility.
  • Second – providing for environmental sustainability and energy conservation, with calculation of full lifecycle costs, including the environmental impact of every proposal, program, and product, and the cost of energy source developmentófrom production, through use and eventual disposal. Related to lifecycle is the potential for unintended consequences. The compact fluorescent light bulb (CFL), for example, uses less electricity than incandescents, and saves 2,000 times its weight in greenhouse gases. But, it contains mercury, and requires safe, convenient, and inexpensive disposal. Moreover, the carbon cost of production must be included in the equation for its sustainability.
  • Third – linking optimum source to specific sector of use. This entails thinking strategically about how each usage sector – electricity generation, residential and commercial heating/cooling, construction, transportation, etc. – is matched to the most efficient, cost effective, sustainable, and reliable supply source, and how what is desired, or what happens in one sector – e.g. transportation – affects what may happen or may be required in another – e.g. electricity generation and transmission.

    This principle suggests that we ask not only where conversion from fossil fuels is possible, but where it is possible first. While ground transportation may run acceptably on electricity, airlines, clearly, cannot. Source for sector of use suggests that we may want to reserve a portion of our fossil fuel to the airline industry, which supports about 33 million jobs internationally, accounts for 7.5 percent of the global domestic product, and is essential to the global economy. If a decision is taken to promote plug-in hybrid vehicles, the resulting greater dependency on electricity, the power plant fuel, and the capacity to generate that electricity must be taken into account.
  • Fourth – investment in sound infrastructure for energy generation, transmission, and distribution, including the necessary regulatory and operational protocols to ensure the safe, secure, and reliable performance of refineries, power plants, the electrical grid, and other facilities.
  • Fifth – the development of policy alternatives that include consistency of regulation, and transparent price signals. An example relates to the carbon content of fuels, processes, and commercial and consumer goods. Congress has focused on reducing carbon content or carbon dioxide production from point sources through financial incentives – primarily through a cap-and-trade system for carbon dioxide in which allowances would be sold, and the amount of allowance would ratchet down every year. Some in the business community have proposed a carbon tax to induce reduction of carbon dioxide emissions. The feasibility of either a carbon tax or a cap-and-trade system will depend upon consistent definition and measurement of the true carbon content of products and processes.

    Companies are beginning to consider the carbon and energy content of their products – sometimes in anticipation of regulation, sometimes for good business reasons. However, many do not or cannot measure carbon dioxide emissions in their global supply chains.
  • Sixth – support for well-functioning energy markets. This includes transparency of fuel pricing and other energy generation costs, as well as mechanisms to secure financing for long-term strategic investments. The latter is frequently a sticking point for developing countries, and sometimes developed ones. This may require new schemes and instruments for trading in energy markets, while monitoring to avoid intense speculation or market manipulation that can drive volatility.


A comprehensive energy security formula must support continuing, robust innovation – both in terms of technological advances, in business process innovation, and in policy alternatives.

We must innovate the technologies that uncover and exploit new energy sources, improve their extraction, and allow more efficient use of them. We must innovate new technologies that conserve energy and protect the environment. And, we must innovate the technologies that lead to alternative energy sources that are reliable, efficient, cost-effective, safe, as environmentally benign as possible, and sustainable.

Innovation and investment in both existing and new technologies are important. The challenges are great, but offer tremendous economic opportunity.

For existing technologies, developments in wind, solar and nuclear are showing great potential.

WIND: The New York Times has called wind the "new oil." New blade designs and innovative flexible composite materials have cut downtimes – resulting in electricity costs of about 8 cents per kilowatt-hour (kwh) – competitive with natural gas and even coal-fired power stations, were they retrofitted for carbon capture and sequestration.

SOLAR: Solar is another alternative where cost per kilowatt-hour has fallen from 50 cents in 1995 to 20 cents in 2005 – and is expected to decline further. Current systems utilize photovoltaic cells, helostatic mirror or lens systems for steam-based electricity generation, or an intriguing experimental combination of the two.

NUCLEAR: Nuclear power, in principle, satisfies many optimum requirements for enhancing energy security – with minimal carbon load. The complete cycle, from resource extraction to waste disposal, emits only about 2-6 grams of carbon equivalent per kilowatt-hour – about the same as wind and solar, if construction and component manufacturing are included – and is about two orders of magnitude below coal, oil, and natural gas. Unlike small wind and solar facilities, it can supply the stable baseload capacity needed to support urban centers, and to stabilize large electrical grids.

Operating costs are competitive, although nuclear power plants are capital-intensive, and require a sophisticated regulatory infrastructure to ensure independent safety oversight.

Accounting for all costs, new nuclear power plants can produce electricity at a cost of between 4.9 and 5.7 cents per kilowatt-hour.

The "Achilles' Heel" is management and disposal of spent nuclear fuel. Global annual nuclear waste generation – about 10,000 tons, with 2,000 tons from the U.S. – is small, when contrasted with the 29 billion tons of fossil fuel carbon waste released annually into the atmosphere. But, nuclear waste must be handled very carefully. Public opinion likely will remain skeptical until a waste repository or other fuel cycle closure solutions are demonstrated – that are long-term, safe, and proliferation-resistant.

The real excitement lies in the innovation of new technologies and the abundant economic opportunities they present. Again, we can examine only a few.

NANO-ENGINEERED MATERIALS hold great potential to improve existing solar technologies, and to provide climate-responsive cladding for buildings. For example, at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, scientists have created anti-reflective materials to enhance conventional solar systems, including the darkest (most light-absorbent) man-made material yet developed. Other Rensselaer researchers have added copper nanorods to the bottom of a metal vesselóincreasing boiling efficiency by an order of magnitude, which could improve the heat transfer of solar power systems. Applied in tandem, these could boost the efficacy of large-scale solar power generation.

BIOFUELS are yielding fascinating possibilities.

Algae is being developed as a source of biofuel that both sequesters carbon dioxide as it grows, and does not impinge upon food production. It grows rapidly into a high-yield biomass, producing high grade lipids for refining into biofuel, yielding about 30 times more energy per acre than land-based crops.32 Moreover, it is possible to select an algae strain to generate particular carbon chains – needed for jet fuel, for example.

Jatropha is a deciduous, drought-resistant perennial that grows quickly in marginal soil, producing seeds with a 37 percent oil content. The unrefined oil can be used directly as fuel, and has been tested, successfully, in unmodified diesel engines. Unlike other vegetable oils from rapeseed or soya, jatropha oil is not edible.

Indian railways are using a jatropha oil/diesel mix in their diesel engines. On December 3rd, Boeing and Air New Zealand will fly a jumbo jet powered, in part, with a 50-50 mix of jet fuel and jatropha oil in one of its four engines, to demonstrate that jatropha biofuel is suitable for aviation use, and is economical.


Coal is, and likely will remain, the most widely used energy source – which is why cleaner coal technology is so important. The National Energy Technology Laboratory (NETL), a U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) agency, suggests that post-combustion, pre-combustion, and oxy-combustion capture systems under development are expected to capture more than 90 percent of flue gas CO2, and reduce costs by 45 percent. Currently, the costs of capture infrastructure are high, and there is concern for the efficacy and safety of long-term underground storage. This has led some to focus on closing the carbon cycle – either through chemical or biologically-inspired processes.

In the nuclear arena, work is proceeding on the high-temperature gas-cooled reactor, with long-lived, graphite-clad fuel that is passively safe, without the need for conventional refueling – as in today's operating nuclear power reactors. Other reactor designs are under study, as well as studies on new materials for critical nuclear components.


Part of the investment in existing technologies must be renewal and upgrades of key aspects of our national infrastructure – long a concern. Rolling brownouts and blackouts in California, hurricane damage to Gulf-based drill rigs and refineries are graphic illustrations of the need both to sustain our existing infrastructure, and to accommodate additional baseload.

What we really must innovate is the new "smart" electrical grid. Its design and evolution must anticipate the development and use of new renewable energy sources, which likely will be connected to the grid in a more distributed and intermittent way. Smarter grids using direct, rather than alternating current, should be examined, to extend transport over longer distances and underwater.


Innovation and infrastructure are key, but they rest on discovery, i.e. basic research. Federally funded research has declined dramatically since the 1970s. As a result, the United States is experiencing a significant advanced technology trade deficit. The U.S. share of global technology exports was 29 percent in 1980. As of 2005, it had fallen to 12 percent – less than half.

Failure to invest robustly in basic research is like eating our seed corn, as many have observed.

The innovation of step-change technologies requires consistent, sustained, long-term investment in basic research, and the translation of that research into new technologies.

At Rensselaer, we are walking the talk. Rensselaer researchers are working on projects that address a spectrum of energy-related technologies – from new nuclear power plant designs, smart light emitting technologies, intelligent traffic patterning, future grid configurations, biochemical solar energy, as well as the nano-engineered materials I already mentioned.

Paper Battery

We have created a paper battery– a cellulosic material infused with aligned carbon nanotubes, which act as electrodes, and allow the storage devices to conduct electricity. It is engineered to function as both a lithium-ion battery and a supercapacitor, and can provide the long, steady power output comparable to a conventional battery, as well as a supercapacitor's quick burst of high energy. It can be activated by internal bodily fluids.

Biochemical Solar Energy

At the Rensselaer Baruch Center for Biochemical Solar Energy Research, researchers are exploring another avenue toward efficient solar power generation. They are investigating fundamental processes in light-driven reactions in natural and artificial systems, and studying its application to design a new generation of photovoltaics. They are examining the molecular mechanisms of natural photosynthesis and the efficient capture of light energy. The goal is to develop cutting-edge technologies for solar energy conversion, and design a new generation of "bio-inspired" artificial photosynthetic devices. They will build partnerships with industry to translate this fundamental research into practical solutions for the energy production.

Smart Lighting

This fall we launched the Rensselaer Smart Lighting Center, one of five new National Science Foundation (NSF) Engineering Research Centers (ERCs), nationally, and the only ERC in New York state.

Researchers there are creating new semiconductor-based materials, devices, applications, and systems which will replace and transcend the incandescent light bulb.

Lighting in homes and offices – whether incandescent or fluorescent bulbs – employs 19th century technology. The Smart Lighting ERC literally will rewrite the rules for the way we manipulate light and researchers expect that it will impact applications as diverse as automobile safety, transportation, communication, imaging, agriculture, medicine, as well as indoor and outdoor illumination. It is posited that solid-state devices with "perfect" materials and design will require only 3 watts to generate the same amount of light from a 60-watt incandescent bulb.

And, with the ability to adjust smart light to specific environments, researchers expect that it will impact applications as diverse as automobile safety, transportation, communication, imaging, agriculture, and medicine.

Electrical Grid

In the Center for Future Energy Systems, faculty and students are studying future electrical grid configurations. They are exploring the dynamics and control of a grid which not only has conventional large baseload plants connected to it, but also intermittent, distributed renewable sources, and new types of control and dispatch requirements.

Nuclear Power Plants

We have faculty simulating the physical, control, and thermohydraulic characteristics of new reactor designs. We also educate more undergraduate nuclear engineers than many universities.


We have just launched a new PhD program, and research center, in partnership with the renowned global architecture firm, Skidmore, Owings, & Merrill. Our new Center for Architecture, Science, and Ecology (CASE) will push the boundaries of environmental performance in building systems, and is expected to have a substantial impact on building construction and operation – which account for more than a third of U.S. energy consumption, and nearly 40 percent of U.S. carbon emissions.

Let me give three examples of projects that CASE, currently, is tackling to harness the power of the sun, wind, and water.

  1. Developing dynamic solar facades, which efficiently capture and convert light into electricity, and heat into hot water. Conventional solar energy systems are about 14 percent efficient. This system has a combined heat and power efficiency of nearly 80 percent.
  2. Designing aerodynamically shaped tall buildings that amplify the speed and power of the wind, which is then harnessed in attached wind turbines. Thus, instead of trying to minimize the impact of the wind on a building, the design maximizes and uses it.
  3. Creating dehumidifying systems for hot, humid, drought-stricken climates that not only remove humidity from the buildingís air, but turn it into potable drinking water. Advances in biotechnology enable architects and engineers to use intelligent desiccant materials to achieve this goal.

In each case, the building becomes a "living" part of its surroundings, working with the environment, rather than imposed upon it. This is a remarkable paradigm shift, which adds "environmental sustainability" to the traditional concerns of architects and engineers.


Innovation requires investment in research and development, but innovation fundamentally requires people. The question is, are we, as a nation, equipped with the human capital for the robust innovation the energy challenge demands of us? As a university president, and as a theoretical physicist, I have deep concerns that our national innovation capacity is in jeopardy. Converging forces have created what I call the "Quiet Crisis," which is eroding the production of scientists, mathematicians, engineers, and technologists we need. The scientists and engineers, who came of age in the post-Sputnik era, are beginning to retire. At the same time, we are no longer producing sufficient numbers of new graduates to replace them. This looming talent gap already is evident in many parts of the energy sector, especially nuclear and oil and gas.

We continue to attract from abroad talented international scientists, engineers, and graduate students, but we do not let enough in, or hold onto enough of those we do attract. Other nations are investing in their own education and research enterprises, offering new opportunities for their scientists and engineers to study and work at home. The "flattening" world means that they, also, can find employment elsewhere, not necessarily in the U.S.

Our demographics have shifted. The "new majority" in the United States now comprises young women and the racial and ethnic groups which, traditionally, have been underrepresented in our advanced science and engineering schools. It is to these "nontraditional" young people to whom we, also, must look for our future scientists and engineers.

This "Quiet Crisis" is "quiet" because the true impact unfolds gradually over time – it takes decades to educate a biomolecular researcher or a nuclear engineer. It is a "crisis" because our national technological innovation capacity rests solely upon such talent, and depends upon our ability to interest and excite all of our young people to the marvels of science and engineeringóto the wonders of discovery and innovation.

This is why what Science Chicago is doing here is so important and, we hope, a model for other cities and regions.


We are caught, as never before, in a double grip – the need for national and global energy security, and legitimate alarm over our planet's climate change. Energy security and climate change mitigation, together, are a national security issue. Issues that ensue from these twin realities – complex geopolitical and geostrategic challenges, unprecedented wealth transfer from one group of nations to another, concern over the impact of a global downturn, the profusion of energy investment choices before us – require vision, careful analysis, coherent thinking, and action.

Investing in energy security and climate change mitigation is key to getting our economy back on track. Investing in energy and environmental sustainability, innovation and infrastructure will generate jobs. The fix for the energy/sustainability challenge, and the fix for the infrastructure challenge are interrelated.

With a new Administration, we are on the brink of turning rhetoric into reality. It is important to assure that our action is comprehensive, and not patch-work, as it often has been in the past. We must not seek a single or quick fix. We must avoid the temptation to be complacent when oil prices fall, or to be distracted by the very real financial crisis. In fact, a beginning step can be part of an economic stimulus package.

This will require the full weight and leadership of the nation's Chief Executive. It will require strong, coordinated leadership in the Congress. And, it will require the cooperation and leadership of state and local governments, as well as the full spectrum of the private sector.

We know that energy security is among the highest priorities for President-elect Barak Obama, and that there has been strong bi-partisan support for addressing energy concerns. This sets the stage for getting started with what can be done via Executive Order and via a stimulus package. The important thing is to commit to a comprehensive energy security roadmap, and to lay its foundations in the first 100 days of the new Administration and Congress.

I look forward to it.

Thank you.

Source citations are available from Strategic Communications and External Relations, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. Statistical data contained herein were factually accurate at the time it was delivered. Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute assumes no duty to change it to reflect new developments.

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