The Department of Energy (DOE) has spent billions upon billions of dollars over the past 30 years on advanced energy technologies in an attempt to diversify the energy portfolio of the United States, but the impact has been minuscule, an official with the Government Accountability Office (GAO) told a House panel last Wednesday. He cautioned that the U.S. energy mix was likely to remain unchanged without more leadership at the federal level.

The DOE spent $57.5 billion over the last three decades for research and development (R&D) on these technologies, but “the nation’s energy portfolio has not dramatically changed — fossil [fuel] energy today provides 85% of the nation’s energy compared to 93% in 1973,” said Mark E. Gaffigan, acting director of GAO’s Natural Resources and Environment division during a hearing before the House Science Committee’s Energy and Environment Subcommittee. In addition, the DOE’s Office of Science spent about $34.3 billion between fiscal years (FY) 2000 and 2008 on related basic energy research, he noted.

Like fossil fuel energy, there was no significant change in the market share of renewable energy during the period. Renewable energy was 7% of the U.S. energy portfolio in 2006, up from 6% in 1973, according to the GAO. However, nuclear energy’s share of the U.S. market rose to 8% in 2006 from 1% in 1973.

“Because DOE’s energy R&D funding alone will not be sufficient to deploy advanced energy technologies, coordinating energy R&D with other federal energy-related programs and policies will be important,” Gaffigan told the subcommittee. Other federal agencies involved in energy R&D include the departments of Agriculture and Defense, he noted.

“In addition to R&D funding, the federal government can attempt to tap the vast resources of the private sector through tax incentives, such as tax credits to companies that make certain types of energy investments.” The federal government currently provides the energy industry and consumers with 20 tax expenditures affecting energy supply, totaling $6.3 billion in FY 2007 and $4.9 billion in FY 2008, Gaffigan estimated. While the tax subsidies have traditionally been geared toward conventional energy sources, they increasingly are being directed at alternative energy fuels, such as wind, solar and biomass.

Congress could enact standards and mandates that would change the nation’s energy mix as well, he said. In the broad energy bill passed in December, Congress revised the renewable fuels standard to require the use of 36 billion gallons of biofuels by 2022.

“Without sustained higher energy prices for our current portfolio, or concerted, high-profile federal government leadership, U.S. consumers are unlikely to change their energy-use patterns, and the U.S. energy portfolio will not change significantly,” Gaffigan warned.

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