A National Crash Project for Alternative Energy?

It is sometimes suggested that the U.S. should undertake a no-holds-barred crash program for developing alternative energy technologies, similar in scope to the Manhattan Project for the atomic bomb or the Apollo Project for moon travel.

While I agree that far more R&D on alternative energy technologies would be a good thing, and that the government has a valid role in stimulating efforts in that aim, I’m pretty sure that a project like Manhattan/Apollo for alternative energy simply wouldn’t work.

This is because there are two major differences between solving our energy challenges and either building an atomic bomb or landing a man on the moon.

First, it would be difficult to set a meaningful final goal for an alternative energy program. How exactly would success be defined? In Apollo, the goal was to send a man to the moon and bring him (male chauvinists!) back by 1970. For Manhattan, it was to build a deliverable atomic bomb as quickly as possible, before Hitler did. These were unambiguously clear and motivating goals. For energy, well, what? Should the goal be to completely eliminate the use of oil? To completely eliminate the use of all fossil fuels? Neither seems even remotely plausible in any time horizon of less than three decades – an impossibly long time to maintain focus. Should the goal be to create a solar cell that costs $0.25/watt? A fuel cell that costs $25/kw? Picking any particular technology to focus on, or any economic/performance threshold to achieve, will invariably be arbitrary and of dubious inspirational value.

Second, it’s hard to see how a major alternative energy effort led by the government wouldn’t lead to nationalization of all subsequent energy industrial activity – a potentially miserable outcome. The previous analogues are instructive: in both atomic weapons and space travel, stemming from their respective mega-projects, the government is the only buyer of the resulting product. There are essentially no markets, and hence no pricing mechanism to allocate economic resources. Entrepreneurial activity is limited to vendors in the supply chain – most of whom are members of the vaunted military/industrial complex. You think you hate ExxonMobil and Halliburton and your local regulated monopoly utility today? You think they lobby too much now? You think they’re too powerful? You think too much corruption derives from them? Imagine a world after an alternative energy program that has been driven by the government, where these companies and their peers negotiate contracts through bidding programs with government agencies for sole-source public supply of energy. As important as it is to dramatically advance alternative energy, I don’t want to see the $900 toilet seat coming to the energy sector.

So, I would submit that we need to think of more creative ways for the government to spur on the massive increase in alternative energy R&D that we badly need. Perhaps it’s well-funded grant programs competitively selected by unbiased expert panels associated with clearly-defined technical/economic challenges. Perhaps it’s tax deductions equal to qualified energy R&D expenditures.

Or, perhaps it’s just an appropriately high carbon tax, to drive fossil fuel prices faced by customers to levels sufficiently high to motivate more energy R&D. I bet we’d be amazed at what $10 gas and 50 cent/kwh electricity would bring out of the woodwork.
Nah, that’s too logical. It’s far more dramatic for politicians and pundits to grab the spotlight and ask for a Manhattan/Apollo program for alternative energy, which has no chance of coming to fruition or succeeding.

3 replies
  1. Anonymous
    Anonymous says:

    Look what "Atoms for Peace" gave us. 'nough said.*** TODAY'S ONPOINT — Energy Policy: Energy Secretary Bodman outlines plans on Yucca, nuclear waste and oil security *** The Energy Department recently announced the Global Nuclear Energy Partnership (GNEP), an ambitious, international plan to recycle spent nuclear fuel. But lawmakers on Capitol Hill are raising questions about the cost and feasibility of the GNEP program, and what it could mean for the long-delayed Yucca Mountain repository. During today's OnPoint, Energy Secretary Samuel Bodman explains his thinking on GNEP, Yucca Mountain legislation and the interim storage of nuclear waste. Plus, Bodman addresses high oil prices and President Bush's pledge to lessen the U.S. "addiction" to foreign oil.

  2. Erich J. Knight
    Erich J. Knight says:

    I thought you may be interested in the new technology to deal with this largest problem of them all, Climate Change, Energy and Space propulsion. There are three companies pursuing hydrogen-boron plasma toroid fusion, a form of aneutronic fusion , Paul Koloc, Prometheus II, Eric Lerner, Focus Fusion and Clint Seward of Electron Power Systems http://www.electronpowersystems.com/ . A resent DOD review of EPS technology reads as follows: "MIT considers these plasmas a revolutionary breakthrough, with Delphi's chief scientist and senior manager for advanced technology both agreeing that EST/SPT physics are repeatable and theoretically explainable. MIT and EPS have jointly authored numerous professional papers describing their work. (Delphi is a $33B company, the spun off Delco Division of General Motors)." Vincent Page (a technology officer at GE!!) gave a presentation at the 05 6th symposium on current trends in international fusion research , which high lights the need to fully fund three different approaches to P-B11 fusion (Below Is an excerpt). He quotes costs and time to development of P-B11 Fusion as tens of million $, and years verses the many decades and ten Billion plus $ projected for ITER and other "Big" science efforts: "for larger plant sizesTime to small-scale Cost to achieve net if the small-scaleConcept Description net energy production energy concept works:Koloc Spherical Plasma: 10 years(time frame), $25 million (cost), 80%(chance of success)Field Reversed Configuration: 8 years $75 million 60%Plasma Focus: 6 years $18 million 80%I feel in light of the recent findings of neutrons, x-rays, and gamma rays in lightening, that these threads need to be brought together in an article.This post is a plea to the science writers to craft a story covering aneutronic fusion, the P-B11 efforts, Eric's high temperatures and x-ray source project, Clint's lightening theories, and DOD review, and Paul's review by GE. The minimal cost and time frame for even the possibility of this leap forward seems criminal not to pursue. If you read my Manhattan article, you may have noticed that I am not a writer. I am a landscape designer and technology gadfly wondering why this technology has never been put in the public eye. My hope is that someone, more skilled, would step up to give a shout out about these technologies. Please contact me for copies of my correspondence with the principles, interesting replies and criticisms from physics discussion forums and academic physicists who have replied to my queries.

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