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Energy Matters Mailbag

July 8, 2011 - 6:21pm

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Editor’s Note: Want to know more about Energy? Whether your seeking tips for saving money, insight on a scientific concept or more details on our policies we invite you to submit your questions via e-mail, Facebook or Twitter for possible inclusion in future editions of our mailbag series.

During last week's edition of Energy Matters, Dr. Arun Majumdar discussed what we as a Department are doing to help diversify our energy portfolio, foster new technologies and break our reliance on foreign oil. He also responded to a variety of questions on the subject submitted via e-mail and by our followers on Facebook and Twitter.

Questions on foreign oil and efforts in clean energy continued to roll in well after Arun signed off, so we decided to pass them on to some of our program experts and present you with the responses in this inaugural edition of the Energy Mailbag.

@WillieWonka: To push conservation is there any merit in graduation of cost/kwh to encourage reduced use?

When it comes to encouraging people to be more energy efficient, electric utilities – of which there are more than 3,200 across the U.S. – are finding success with a variety of approaches including time-of-use plans, critical peak pricing and increasing block pricing of electricity. This is a complex issue for which there is no “one size fits all” solution. As time goes on, hopefully more examples of what works and what doesn’t work in specific situations will become available so that those “lessons learned” can be shared.

@BaginskiPolicy: We've been talking about independence from foreign oil for decades - where are the Mbblpd fuel substitutes like CTL (coal-to-liquids)? #energymatters

Substitution of foreign oil is a complex issue. The viability of it depends on an array of factors, such as the production cost of alternate feed stocks, availability and maturity of the conversion technologies, and the world crude oil price. Since most of the crude oil is converted into transportation fuels, the Department of Energy previously supported technology development on coal to liquids (CTL) and continues to support R&D for producing alternative fuels from biomass while promoting vehicle fuel efficiency and energy conservation.

According to EIA’s Annual Energy Outlook 2011, world oil prices are estimated to be just under $125/barrel (EIA AEO2011) by 2035, and current world oil prices are approximately $95/barrel as of July 5, 2011. Although studies indicate CTL using today’s technologies would be profitable at this oil price, industry is best positioned to evaluate commercial-scale market opportunities for CTL.

Ultimately, we are pursuing a variety of methods to reduce our dependence on foreign oil; in 2010, the U.S. produced 13 billion gallons of ethanol and 315 million gallons of biodiesel from domestic biomass resources, which displaced billions of gallons of petroleum-based transportation fuel. The Department of Energy is currently focused on developing the next generation of biofuels; scaling up technologies that convert cellulosic and algal biomass into price-competitive advanced biofuels to further reduce foreign oil consumption.

Our Vehicle Technologies Program is also working to reduce our need for foreign oil and deploying alternative fuels that can replace it. Much of the Program’s research and development focuses on developing vehicles that need less petroleum. R&D on lightweighting, which integrates lighter materials that maintain safety, and increasing the efficiency of internal combustion engines can lead to both heavy and light duty vehicles that have significantly higher fuel economy than those available today. R&D on energy storage (such as batteries), power electronics and vehicle systems technologies will help lower the costs and increase availability of hybrid and electric vehicles, which will use little or no petroleum.

Other program areas test new technologies and advanced fuels to determine the impact on current vehicles and to maximize efficiency. In addition, the Program’s Clean Cities initiative helps bring alternative fuel and advanced vehicle solutions, including natural gas, propane, ethanol, biodiesel, electricity,idle reduction and fuel efficiency measures to the road. Through its nearly 100 Clean Cities coalitions and a variety of online tools (fueleconomy.gov and afdc.energy.gov), the initiative provides resources to fleets and consumers to help them make decisions that lower their petroleum use.

Evan Bartlett: I would like to know the extent of research being done on more advanced extraction technologies so we can recover resources like oil sands/bitumen in a more efficient and cost effective manner. Most of the world's oil reserves are found in unconventional sources like bitumen and there is an enormous quantity of this. Given obstacles facing many other energy sources and decreasing conventional oil reserves, it is clear that unconventional oil will be integral to our future energy needs.

We are not conducting any research in this area at this time. EPACT required us to do a study and we published this report in 2007: http://www.fossil.energy.gov/programs/oilgas/publications/oilshale/HeavyOilLowRes.pdf

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