Energy Numbers, Part 2

Some of the numbers in the White House’s description of the Advanced Energy Initiative worry me. It seems, judging by the amount spent, that a serious effort is being made with respect to coal and hydrogen fuel cell vehicles…

The President’s Coal Research Initiative. Coal provides more than half of the Nation’s electricity supply, and America has enough coal to last more than 200 years. As part of the National Energy Policy, the President committed $2 billion over 10 years to speed up research in the use of clean coal technologies to generate electricity while meeting environmental regulations at low cost.
The Hydrogen Fuel Initiative. In his 2003 State of the Union address, President Bush announced a $1.2 billion Hydrogen Fuel Initiative to develop technology for commercially viable hydrogen-powered fuel cells…
However, in other areas, the amounts being spent lead me to believe that the efforts are little more than symbolic…
The President’s Solar America Initiative. The 2007 Budget will propose a new $148 million Solar America Initiative — an increase of $65 million over FY06 — to accelerate the development of semiconductor materials that convert sunlight directly to electricity…
Expanding Clean Energy from Wind. The 2007 Budget includes $44 million for wind energy research — a $5 million increase over FY06 levels. This will help improve the efficiency and lower the costs of new wind technologies for use in low-speed wind environments…
The Biorefinery Initiative. To achieve greater use of “homegrown” renewable fuels in the United States, advanced technologies need to be perfected to make fuel ethanol from cellulosic (plant fiber) biomass, which is now discarded as waste. The President’s 2007 Budget will include $150 million — a $59 million increase over FY06 — to help develop bio-based transportation fuels from agricultural waste products, such as wood chips, stalks, or switch grass…
Developing More Efficient Vehicles. …Advanced battery technologies offer the potential to significantly reduce oil consumption in the near-term. The 2007 Budget includes $30 million — a $6.7 million increase over FY06 — to speed up the development of this battery technology and extend the range of these vehicles….
I know money doesn’t solve all research problems. But money does allow the solvable problems to be solved a whole lot faster.
Now, think in terms of other numbers you’ve seen associated with the Federal budget. $148,000,000 on Solar power — which could benefit the whole country — is only about 2/3 of what the Federal government was going to spend on a single bridge in Alaska (and now that money is just being given to the Alaska state legislature). $44,000,000 for wind energy research? That’s less than what was earmarked in the highway bill for constructing bike paths and buying up land to limit growth near route 95 within the State of Rhode Island alone.
The relative amounts allocated in this “major” initiative imply one or more of the following…
1. The administration is not serious about promoting these programs. These are token sums, intended mainly to score political points by making it look like the government is doing something.
2. Things like wind and solar and biofuels have no immediate future on the scale that the country needs. In other words, if wind or solar could solve our energy problems soon, wouldn’t the government pouring the same amount of money into them that we are about to pour into buying digital-to-analog TV converters ($3,000,000,000) for everyone in the country?
3. The alternative energy problem is not really a research problem anymore. We already know how to make good windmills, and solar cells, and biofuels, and there’s not a whole lot more to be done. The real problem, now, is disseminating the technology and bringing products to market.
My fear is that the problem is a combination of 1 & 3. Reducing regulation and supporting businesses that will build and sell the new technologies are what need attention, but talking about reducing regulation is not sexy enough to score political points, so the government spends most of its effort (and our dollars) on funding a few, high profile, but low practical reward projects.

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Fred Sanford
Fred Sanford
18 years ago

Andrew, these are interesting points you are making. What is abundantly clear to me is that the politicians we have in DC are more interested in creating a market for pork so they can get re-elected than in creating a market for alternative energies so we can get be less reliant on the Middle East. Based on the campaigns so far, it is clear that Chafee is into pork while Laffey is into making a difference by offering a solution so we can get off foreign oil.

18 years ago

Andrew, first let me say how refreshing it has been to read posts not dedicated to the Chafee-Laffey race. Don’s posts on federalism have been fantastic as has this last series on energy.
I tend to think that it the problem we face now with our alternative energy efforts is actually a combination of #2 and #3.
Behold NIMBYism at its worst. Even in liberal massachusetts and southern cal there is staunch opposition to windfarm proposals both existing and proposed. The hurdles to even the most promising proposals are sure to be too great for any real progress to take place here.
That said, overall, the technology in wind and solar is there (see the story today via Drudge re: Nevada’s new solar farm), however the infrastructure isn’t. One of the main arguments for clean coal technology is that it takes pre-existing facilities and adapts them to new technologies. For our short-term, coal is in my opinion the most promising area for development. The infrastructure is the same, the delivery system is still the same, yes, the players are the same.
As for our investments in hydrogen and ethanol: Ethanol and Hydrogen fuel cells hold enormous potential that wind and solar do not address: namely portability. In order to fully rid ourselves of our ‘dependency on foreign oil’ we have to reduce or eliminate our petroleum consumption. It is gasoline, more than anything else that accounts for the bulk of our consumption. Wind and Solar are a step in reducing our commercial and residential energy needs, but will do little more than dent our overall energy problem. Again, hydrogen and ethanol can be adapted to pre-existing infrastructure, and in the case of ethanol are ready-to-use today. It is in these technologies that we will ultimately realize our independence.

18 years ago

Wind and solar potentially loom much larger than what you indicated. What you said is true about gasoline being the primary culprit; however, wind and solar produce electricity and a much higher percentage of our vehicles will soon run on electricity. These vehicles will not have windmills or solar panels on their roofs, but can be plugged into electricity sources powered by solar and wind.
An more hidden but huge consumer of petroleum is all the products (such as plastics etc) that are petrochemical-derived. Solar and wind don’t help here.

18 years ago

Andrew- Mainly 1) with a little bit of 3), in my opinion. The two are inter-related, though. Increasing levels of consistent government support give venture capitalists and entrepreneurs confidence to ramp-up production at higher and higher rates. This brings costs down faster, which drives demand. We have excellent solar technology today, so state-of-the-art in fact that semiconductor companies are now moving into solar because it is in the vanguard of chip technology overall. Yet the cost is still too high to make it affordable at the consumer level without some type of subsidy. Silicon Valley likes to talk about “Moore’s law” or its derivatives, which states that the number of transistors that fit on computer chips doubles every 18 months. This is why a computer today costs $500 and is exponentially more powerful than a $3000 machine of a decade ago. Solar power is harnessed via silicon and other kinds of chips, which are not terribly dissimilar from those used in computers. We should therefore see prices declining by at least 25%/year. Meaningful federal government support delivered to the industry could accelerate that 25% figure dramatically. All the feds would really have to do is replicate the California program on a national scale. It is proven to be effective, given that California’s mirrors most of Japan’s and a portion of Germany’s already-established and successful programs. The key to the above three initiatives is that the consumer be willing to stomach a $12-15 yearly increase in his utility bill whether he utilizes solar or not. So it involves coercion by government to some degree – not high on the list of conservative values by any means. Is it worth it? I would argue yes, but only from a national security standpoint. I believe that these solar subsidy decisions need to be… Read more »

18 years ago

If you look a few months back to an energy committee hearing about fuel cell cars, the energy and car companys have said that two things have been helping them out.
1) Working together with other car companies and oil companies to work out any design problems that may come up and to test cars in certain situations.
2) Federal Gov’t money (obviously) has help them fund their projects even more. So, yes Andrew you are right, if we are serious about alternative energy Congress much give better funding to lesser known programs.
My question to everyone here is, how do you deal with the electric companies state to state. MA has what are essentially regional monoploies (which are combining forces again) but the people have very little choice about who they get their energy from. Could solar, wind, or whatever we come up with let people have a better choice of where we get our energy?

18 years ago

I don’t know that there is great disdain for solar power fields. From the work that I have been involved with, the challenge that lawmakers face with solar farms has as much to do with location than any technological concerns. Some highly populated areas simply are not suitable for solar energy and others do not have favorable climates.
But to answer george, MA is not the only state that has a virtual monopoly. RI is a much closer-to-home example. We have 2 effective monopolies in this state in our major utilities alone and we’re supposed to be de-regulated!
Under 1996 legislation, Rhode Islanders are meant to have the choice in where we get our energy (gas, nuclear, wind, hydro). However, anyone that pays a utility bill knows that you can get your energy from wherever you want, but the pricing is still set on the oil and natural gas spot market by the utilities and approved by FERC.
We do have a choice, though. By teaming up with our regional neighbors as we did in the late 70s/early 80s, we can contest our rates and determine to some degree our energy sources. Unfortunately, our Attorney General has no clue how to fight these cases. There are things that an AG can do. He’s either too lazy or unaware of his job description to do anything.
Judging from the Station Fire “investigation” and recent plea agreement, I would say that it’s a combination of both.

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