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Physicists: Energy efficiency crucial

WASHINGTON, D.C. (Sept. 16, 2008) — Eliminating wasted energy from automobiles, homes and businesses is equivalent to tapping a hidden energy reserve that will help the United States improve its energy security and reduce global warming, an American Physical Society (APS) study panel concluded in a major report released today.

The report, Energy Future: Think Efficiency, reaches three overarching conclusions:

  • Improving energy efficiency is a relatively easy and inexpensive way to significantly reduce the nation’s demand for imported oil and its greenhouse gas emissions without causing any loss of comfort or convenience.
  • Numerous technologies exist today to increase the efficiency of U.S. vehicles and buildings in ways that could save individual consumers money. But without federal policies to overcome market barriers, the U.S. is unlikely to capitalize on these technologies.
  • Far greater increases in energy efficiency are available in the future, but realizing these potential gains will require a larger and better focused federal research and development program on energy efficiency than exists today.

The report concludes that the average light-duty vehicle should have a mileage of at least 50 miles per gallon by 2030 and that widespread construction of homes that require no fossil fuels should be possible in most areas by 2020.

The report recommends that the federal government invest more in its research and development programs, particularly in the areas of batteries for conventional hybrid vehicles, plug-in hybrids and battery electric vehicles. The report credits automakers for devoting resources to the development of hydrogen fuel cell and plug-in hybrid vehicles, but concludes that they will not be a short-term solution to the nation’s energy needs because to be broadly adopted they will require significant scientific and engineering breakthroughs in several critical areas.

The study also calls on Congress and the White House to increase spending on research and development of next-generation building technologies and on training scientists who work on building technologies. Additionally, it recommends that lawmakers develop policies that address a wide-array of market barriers that discourage consumers from investing in energy-efficient technologies, especially in the highly fragmented building sector.

"The American people need leadership from the Congress and the next president on this issue," said Nobel Laureate Burton Richter, chair of the study panel and director emeritus of the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center. "Both Sens. McCain and Obama have outlined plans for improving energy efficiency and the important role new technologies will play in our energy future. The next leader of the United States will have an opportunity to be the first in history to lay the necessary groundwork to reduce energy use among Americans."

Among its key findings and recommendations for the transportation and building sectors:

Transportation

  • Technologies are available to safely move beyond the 35 mile per gallon Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standard mandated by law by the year 2020. The federal government should establish policies to ensure that new light-duty vehicles average 50 mpg or more by 2030.
  • Plug-in hybrids require more efficient and more durable batteries able to withstand deep discharges that are not yet in commercial large-scale production. Given the technical difficulties, plug-in hybrids will not replace the standard American car in the near future.
  • Hydrogen fuel cell vehicles have the potential to eliminate gasoline usage, but they also require scientific breakthroughs, including advances in fuel cells, catalysts and on-board hydrogen storage systems.

Buildings

  • Energy use by buildings could be no higher in 2030 than it is today if technologies that are available or in the pipeline are installed in a cost-effective manner.
  • Widespread, cost-effective construction of residential zero energy buildings (ZEB)—buildings that use no net energy—is feasible by 2020, except in hot, humid climates.
  • Widespread, cost-effective construction of ZEB commercial buildings by 2030—a current goal in law and of many groups—will not be possible without an intensified federal program of research, development and demonstration.
  • Current green building rating systems such as Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) do not appear to give sufficient weight to energy efficiency.

The report also calls on Congress and the White House to allocate funds for the Department of Energy’s (DOE) Office of Science consistent with the authorizations in the 2005 Energy and Policy Act and the 2007 America COMPETES Act. And it calls on DOE to fully comply with the Energy Policy Act mandate to improve coordination between its basic and applied research activities and to fold long-term applied research into its scientific programming in a more serious way than it currently does.

About APS

American Physical Society is the leading professional organization of physicists, representing more than 46,000 physicists in academia and industry in the United States and internationally, and counts nearly 60 Nobel Laureates among its members. APS has offices in College Park, Md. (headquarters), Ridge, N.Y. and Washington, D.C.

For a full copy of the APS report Energy Future: Think Efficiency and related materials, including video and photographs, go to http://www.aps.org/energyefficiencyreport/.

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