Lighting the Way: Toward a Sustainable Energy Future

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  • Lighting the way

    While the current energy outlook is very sobering, the Study Panel believes that there are sustainable solutions to the energy problem. Aggressive support of energy science and technology must be coupled with incentives that accelerate the concurrent development and deployment of innovative solutions that can transform the entire landscape of energy demand and supply. Opportunities to substitute superior supply-side and end-use technologies exist throughout the world’s energy systems, but current investment flows generally do not reflect these opportunities.

    Science and engineering provide guiding principles for the sustainability agenda. Science provides the basis for a rational discourse about tradeoffs and risks, for selecting research and development priorities, and for identifying new opportunities—openness is one of its dominant values. Engineering, through the relentless optimization of the most promising technologies, can deliver solutions—learning by doing is among its dominant values. Better results will be achieved if many avenues are explored in parallel, if outcomes are evaluated with actual performance measures, if results are reported widely and fully, and if strategies are open to revision and adaptation.

    Long-term energy research and development is thus an essential component of the pursuit of sustainability. Significant progress can be achieved with existing technology but the scale of the long-term challenge will demand new solutions. The research community must have the means to pursue promising technology pathways that are already in view and some that may still be over the horizon.

    The transition to sustainable energy systems also requires that market incentives be aligned with sustainability objectives. In particular, robust price signals for avoided carbon emissions are critical to spur the development and deployment of low-carbon energy technologies. Such price signals can be phased in gradually, but expectations about how they will change over time must be established in advance and communicated clearly so that businesses can plan with confidence and optimize their long-term capital investments.

    Critical to the success of all the tasks ahead are the abilities of individuals and institutions to effect changes in energy resources and usage. Capacity building, both in terms of investments in individual expertise and institutional effectiveness, must become an urgent priority of all principal actors: multi-national organizations, governments, corporations, educational institutions, non-profit organizations, and the media. Above all, the general public must be provided with sound information about the choices ahead and the actions required for achieving a sustainable energy future.