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Electrifying The Future: The Case for Electricity Research and Development

By Craven Crowell

July 6,  2000
The Commercial Appeal, Memphis, Tennessee

Funding for research and development to power our digital society and maintain our database of human knowledge has been declining in both the public and private sectors for the past decade and is now at a 20-year low.

This comes at a time when the electric power industry already is humming about the possibility of brownouts and rolling blackouts this summer.

While we slowly go about unplugging our commitment to research and development, the reliability of America’s power grid—already operating at the limits of stability—is increasingly being threatened. And promising scientific discoveries to improve the transmission system are not being vigorously pursued for lack of commitment and funding.

Now more than ever, we depend on electric-powered technology to feed the world’s growing population and to do so with less damage to the environment. Electricity cannot keep meeting these challenges unless we invest more in R&D.

Without a larger commitment to R&D, theoretical breakthroughs will not become the radios, televisions and Internets of tomorrow. For the benefit of society as a whole, we must increase our investment in electricity research, especially with long-term funding that might not pay off in the next quarterly stock report, but which could pay huge dividends in the long run. At EPRI we call this "patient money."

The primary reason to invest more patient money is population growth. A hundred years ago, no city on the planet had more than 10 million people. By 2050 the world could have as many as 60 “mega-cities” with populations of more than 10 million. Some cities could be double that size. These numbers would mean a staggering increase in worldwide demand for energy over a relatively short period of time.

Clearly, we will need more efficient technology to meet this enormous demand—technology that will only be developed if we commit ourselves to an intensive program of R&D. And because continued reliance on fossil fuels will produce unacceptable levels of pollution, growing demand will also require accelerated research on more environmentally benign "green power" technologies.

Along with developing cleaner and more efficient ways to generate electric power, we must find ways to make power generation more reliable and dependable. Our nation’s electric power system is one of the largest and most complex structures of the technological age. The magnitude of bulk power transactions in the United States has increased fourfold in the last decade and the trend shows no sign of slowing down.

It is important to point out that when we talk about reliability, we are not just talking about the quantity of electric power, we are talking about quality as well. To high-tech industries, reliable and high-quality electric power is business-critical. For factories turning out the latest generation of semiconductors, even minor fluctuations in the power supply are unacceptable.

We already have technology in development that would dramatically increase the reliability of the U.S. power grid. Fuel cells could help with delivery. Transmission lines could be upgraded to operate more efficiently. But right now these technologies are simply too expensive. More research is needed to help bring down the costs and make commercial deployment more affordable.

The executive team at EPRI has embarked on a long-term strategy to meet these challenges, creating an “Electricity Technology Roadmap” to guide R&D through the first half of the 21st century. EPRI’s Roadmap is an ongoing initiative that involves about 150 organizations who share a coherent, strategic vision for the future of electric power.
These organizations have joined EPRI in bringing both strength of will and clarity of purpose to the pursuit of basic and applied research about electricity. In supporting EPRI’s call for $50 billion in additional funding for energy research over the next 10 years, they are betting on the scientific enterprise, while recognizing that only by collaborating can the necessary resources be marshaled.

By following their lead, we can deliver on electricity’s promise for the future. By doing what it takes, by investing what it takes, we can keep America’s power system a benchmark for quality and reliability.

Craven Crowell is Chairman of the Tennessee Valley Authority

 

 

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