Former Department of Energy official shares insight on global energy future

Franklin (Lynn) Orr, former Under Secretary for Energy and Science, addressed the public on Thursday, October 19, in the general lecture of the two-part Reed M. Izatt and James J. Christensen Lecture Series. As Under Secretary, Orr served as the principal advisor to the Secretary of the U.S. Department of Energy, giving him a unique perspective on the world’s energy future.

At the heart of Orr’s lecture was the statistic that 85 percent of the energy that the world consumes comes from fossil fuels. Carbon dioxide emissions from these fossil fuels pose serious global climate change problems. He claimed that the future of energy will involve a transition to include much more renewable energy resources like the sun and wind and to address the environmental issues associated with the remaining fossil fuels.

“There is no shortage of energy. There’s plenty of it around,” Orr said. “It’s all about how we convert it from whatever primary energy resource it is, into an energy service like electricity.”

In this conversion process, cost plays an important role, he said. Humans have long possessed the capacity to turn renewable resources like the wind and solar into usable forms of energy, but we only recently have started to do so in a manner that approaches cost competitiveness. Orr emphasized that the responsibility falls on the shoulders of the research community to discover how to minimize these conversion costs.

Despite economic obstacles, the United States is at least trending towards cleaner, renewable energy. Over the past seven years, consumption of the worst carbon-emitting resources, coal, natural gas and petroleum, has declined, increased and remained the same, respectively. Recent technology developments for producing oil and natural gas have decreased the cost of natural gas and significantly increased its consumption, with an associated net decrease in CO2 emissions. Meanwhile, renewable energy production, though it still represents a small fraction of the total energy consumption, has sharply increased as well.

 CO2 emission rates in the US and Europe have been in decline for several years, in large part due to the shift to natural gas as a power source and in some measure because of an economic slowdown. Developing countries such as China and India emit carbon dioxide at much lower rates per person than the developed countries. While the developing countries’ emission rates are increasing, the rate of increase is slowing. These trends have produced a global plateau in CO2 emission rates in the last two years, though the CO2 concentration in the atmosphere continues to climb. It is unclear how these trends might change as the world emerges from a global economic slowdown.

However, Orr remains optimistic that as energy costs for natural gas and renewable resources continue to decline, these resources will increasingly represent a more substantial part of the world’s energy consumption. This could lead to a continued decrease in CO2 emissions in the US and abroad despite recent US policy changes to longer mandate such reductions. Economic forces, not by government policy, substantially drove the recent decline in natural gas and renewable energy costs and those economics do not appear to be changing soon. He illustrated this by recent innovations in LED production.

“Over the past nine years…LED [costs] are down by about 95 percent. Part of how that happened is that we began to get to scale in manufacturing. The first LED bulb I bought cost 60 bucks…a year and a half ago, India bought millions of them at about a buck each.”

Where can we apply these new technologies to maximize energy efficiency? Orr explained that a massive 40 percent of the energy we consume ends up in buildings. With such a large portion of the nation’s energy being diverted into structures, small, collective changes towards energy efficiency would have a major impact on the U.S.’s overall energy consumption. He claimed that implementing relatively simple technologies like solar panels, LED lighting and improved insulation would go a long way towards realizing this efficiency.

Technologies that contribute to the efficient conversion of renewable resources into power make up a significant portion of what Orr calls “a $60 trillion international market for energy technologies between now and 2040.” He emphasized that today’s students will soon find themselves on the forefront of energy innovation.

“A clean energy transformation is well underway. We’ve made some progress, but there’s a heck of a lot more to do, and in particular, it’s all you students in the audience who are the ones with work to do.”

The Reed M. Izatt and James J. Christensen Lectures Series is an annual lectureship. The lecturer is selected annually by a committee appointed by the chair of the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry and the chair of the Department of Chemical Engineering. The series is divided into two separate lectures. The first is more universal in nature for the general public, while the second is more technical and intended for faculty and students in that field.

As the first part of the lecture series, Orr delivered this general lecture in the auditorium of the Joseph Smith Building. He delivered the technical lecture titled “R&D Pathways for Energy Technology Innovation” on Friday, October 20, at the Varsity Theatre in the Wilkinson Student Center.

BYU professors Reed M. Izatt and James J. Christensen initiated a joint research program at BYU in chemical thermodynamics and chemical separations that attracted international recognition. Since 1957, more than 60 graduate students received M.S. and Ph.D. degrees in chemistry and chemical engineering under their direction. They founded a company, IBC Advanced Technologies, Inc., that carries out worldwide metal separations on a commercial scale. During their careers, they authored or coauthored over 800 books, book chapters, and peer reviewed articles.

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