The Department of Energy (DOE) released its first Quadrennial Technology Review, identifying the technology areas in which focused DOE research and development (R&D) could make the biggest difference advancing nation’s economic and energy security in the years ahead. In the transportation energy sector, the QTR would give greater emphasis to improving vehicle efficiency and vehicle electrification technologies, and would give less emphasis to biofuels R&D. In the biofuel area, the QTR would focus R&D resources on drop-in biofuels, shifting away from ethanol.

September 27, the DOE released the “Report on the First Quadrennial Technology Review.” Reducing U.S. oil imports by one third by 2025 and reducing greenhouse gas emissions 17 percent below the 2005 baseline by 2020 remain top administration priorities.

Changing the way the nation fuels its transportation system is key to advancing both priorities. Transportation accounts for 72 percent of U.S. petroleum consumption, and 95 percent of U.S. transportation runs on petroleum. The report observes that U.S. petroleum consumption has peaked. Less than half of the liquid fuels used in the U.S. today are imported, and this is expected to decline to about 42 percent by 2035. Increased use of biofuels, improved vehicle efficiency, the electrification of the vehicle fleet, and increased domestic petroleum production will account for declining petroleum imports. The report notes, however, that the U.S. will remain energy insecure so long as it remains dependent in any way on petroleum (domestic or imported). Even with declining imports (a little less than 10 million barrels per day), petroleum imports account for roughly 70 percent of the U.S. trade deficit.

The report acknowledges that liquid hydrocarbon fuels will be important for transportation for years to come. It notes that ethanol today accounts for about seven percent of the gasoline market (based on energy content), but that it is limited by the lack of transportation infrastructure and the need to change engines and fuel dispensers to accommodate higher concentrations of ethanol. However, alternative, drop-in hydrocarbon biofuels are more expensive to produce than ethanol. This is where DOE proposes to focus its R&D in the bioenergy field – developing low-cost, infrastructure- and engine-compatible drop-in biofuels – especially for aviation, maritime, and rail transport, for which electrification is not an option.

Other fields of biomass energy research, development, demonstration, and deployment (e.g. biomass power, CHP, co-firing) are not mentioned as priorities.