U.S. Climate Technology Plan

White House task force gets credit for talking a good game

4 min read

On 20 September, the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) released its Climate Change Technology Strategic Program Plan, a 243-page report that evaluates prospects for all relevant ­greenhouse-gas mitigation technologies and identifies the various sources of ­government support for development of the technologies. The climate technology road map has its genesis in the 1992 United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, which the United States signed and ratified, though it declined to go along with the 1997 Kyoto Protocol to the treaty [see sidebar, "California and Kyoto"]. Consistent with the treaty’s commitment to preventing what it calls ”dangerous” climate change, in 2002 President Bush created the cabinet-level Committee on Climate Change Science and Technology Integration. That committee then drew up a ­science research program, which was published in mid-2003, and a technology plan, which was supposed to be published at the same time but was considerably delayed.

The U.S. climate technology plan represents the first time that federal spending on greenhouse-­mitigation technology has been detailed and ­combined into a complete plan. Stephen Eule, director of the climate change technology program at the DOE, told the House Government Reform Committee on 21 September that pursuing the plan will accomplish the goal President Bush established in 2002: reducing the greenhouse gas ­intensity--that is, emissions per unit of economic output--of the U.S. economy by 18 ­percent by 2012. ”Although we are only a few years into the effort, the nation appears on track to meet the president’s goal,” Eule said.

The long-awaited plan states first of all which technologies can do the most the fastest to cut greenhouse gas emissions [see photos, " Future Tech”], while cautioning against expecting too much too soon of others. It says, for example, that carbon capture and storage will become a really big factor only in 30 or 40 years. Just as important, it lists multiple federal funding streams that support research in climate-friendly technologies.

Of the nearly US $3 billion being spent on climate technology research, development, demonstration, and deployment in the just-ending fiscal 2006, $2.4 billion went to the DOE, with $1.17 billion of that spent by the energy efficiency and renewable energy office. That office is responsible for the $300â''million-a-year FreedomCAR program--Bush’s effort to promote development of hydrogen fuel cell vehicles--as well as some more moderately funded light- and heavy-duty vehicle programs. The office also manages projects to encourage greater energy efficiency in buildings, lighting, industrial combustion, and the electric grid. Dribs and drabs of funding go to other agencies--for example, to the Department of Agriculture to foster carbon absorption in soils and trees.

Most fair-minded observers, after ritually criticizing the plan for having been so delayed, admitted it was well done conceptually--but then they kept stumbling, out of a lingering ambivalence. Rep. Sherwood Boehlert (R-N.Y.), retiring chairman of the House Science Committee, said the plan provides a thoughtful and comprehensive review of existing programs and of possible directions for the future. But he complained about its lack of clear priorities and criteria for determining which programs to fund, when to fund them, or how much funding to provide. ”The plan also explicitly fails to deal with what is perhaps the key issue in climate change technology--technology deployment,” Boehlert stated.

Chris Mottershead, distinguished advisor on energy and the environment at British Petroleum, echoed that point, after calling the plan ”comprehensive and well considered.” BP is partnering with Ford and DaimlerChrysler on two separate teams in the program to demonstrate hydrogen vehicle technology, which is funded at about $33 million a year by the DOE FreedomCAR program. ”To move forward, this funding needs to be a little larger,” says Stephen Zimmer, director of ­government collaborative ­programs at DaimlerChrysler, agreeing with Mottershead.

It is instructive, in this context, to consider a product announcement that German carmaker BMW issued just as the U.S. climate plan was coming off the presses. BMW will be the first automaker in the world to offer a hydrogen-­powered vehicle, when it starts leasing its BMW Series 7 Hydrogen sedan in March (admittedly at astronomical prices). The Series 7 burns hydrogen directly in an internal combustion engine, storing the gas in liquid form in a small tank neatly placed behind the rear seat. Meanwhile, neither Ford nor GM nor DaimlerChrysler is close to rolling out any kind of light-duty hydrogen vehicle, whether it’s one relying on an internal combustion engine or a motor powered by advanced fuel cells.

Donald Hillebrand, director of transportation research at Argonne National Laboratory, calls BMW’s approach ”very clever.” Argonne has worked with both BMW and Ford, the U.S. leader in adapting internal combustion engines to run on hydrogen. Ford, however, is testing only large commuter vans with room enough to handle the huge hydrogen tanks needed to hold gaseous hydrogen, which cannot be used to power sedans until Detroit figures out how to compress hydrogen gas to about 70 megapascals.

There are those, of course, who wish the climate technology group had just delivered something like a hydrogen car, ready to go. Yet despite misgivings that the climate plan is after all nothing but a road map, it still has met with fairly wide bipartisan satisfaction. ”While the plan is in some ways less than I would have wished, it puts the United States vastly ahead of the rest of the world [in terms of technology planning],” says Lee Lane, executive director of the Climate Policy Center, a nonprofit organization that promotes development of zero-greenhouse-gas technologies and international arrangements consistent with the Kyoto Protocol.

Lane would like to see the United States establish an energy counterpart to the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) to do exploratory research on climate change technologies. With the same idea in mind, Rep. Tom Davis (R-Va.), chairman of the House Government Reform Committee, has said he may introduce a bill authorizing funding to create the Climate Change Advanced Research Projects Agency (call it CCARPA).

At the hearings he chaired, Davis--a senior House Republican--wondered out loud: ”Is it time to say ’CCARPA Diem’ and seize the opportunity to take technology research to the next level by bringing [the climate change technology plan] to the forefront of the U.S. climate change agenda?”

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