The Department of Energy's (DOE) current level of research and development (R&D) funding and the nation's energy policies are not sufficient to deploy advanced energy technologies over the next 25 years, an official with the Government Accountability Office (GAO) told a House Appropriations subcommittee Wednesday.

"Without sustained high energy prices or concerted, high-profile federal government leadership, U.S. consumers are unlikely to change their energy-use patterns, and the United States will continue to rely upon its current energy portfolio," said Jim Wells, GAO's director of natural resources and environment, during a hearing of the House Subcommittee on Energy and Water Development.

"Government leadership is needed to overcome technological and market barriers to deploying advanced energy technologies that would reduce the nation's vulnerability to oil supply disruptions and [the] adverse environment effects of burning fossil fuels," he noted.

The "DOE's R&D efforts have resulted in steady incremental progress in reducing costs for renewable energy, reducing harmful emissions of coal-fired power plants, and improving safety and efficiency for nuclear energy. Nevertheless, the nation's dependence on conventional fossil fuels remains virtually the same as 30 years ago," Wells said.

Further development and deployment of advanced renewable, fossil and nuclear energy face several key challenges, including high capital costs, environmental concerns and technology challenges, he noted. "The high capital costs of advanced energy technologies worry risk-averse investors. [Notably], solar cells made to convert solar energy into electricity for homeowners and businesses have been typically too expensive to compete with fossil fuels."

In addition, Wells said "advanced energy technologies need to address harmful environmental effects, including bird and bat fatalities caused by wind turbines, carbon dioxide and mercury emissions by coal-fired power plants, and spent nuclear fuel from nuclear power plants."

As for the technology hurdles, he noted that the challenges are unique to each technology and create barriers to development and deployment. "Ethanol, for example, will need to be manufactured with most cost-competitive technologies using agricultural residues or other cellulosic materials in order to expand beyond corn."

In the meantime, DOE's budget authority to address advanced energy technologies has been cut significantly over the years, dropping from about $5.5 billion in fiscal year 1978 to $793 million in fiscal year 2005, Wells said.

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