June 22, 2007

Right Approach, Wrong Reason

David Sokol calls for a new Apollo program on "climate change" in order to force a shift towards renewable energy in the US. He wants the government to "live up to their rhetoric" on cleaner energy sources, comparing it to the Kennedy mission to get a man to the moon. Sokol has the right idea, but the wrong reasons -- and a mistaken analogy:

In May 1961, President John F. Kennedy committed the nation, by the end of that decade, to landing Americans on the moon and bringing them safely back to Earth. Kennedy identified specific interim goals, such as developing a lunar spacecraft, new rocket booster technologies, and the deployment of satellite communication and weather observation systems.

In asking Congress to support his goal, he said that the effort "will last for many years and carry very heavy costs" and that it demanded "a major national commitment of scientific and technical manpower."

Today, many political leaders say that climate change is the defining challenge of our generation. Unfortunately, they fail to provide Kennedy's understanding of what is required, much less the resources and leadership, to succeed.

Let's start with the bad analogy first, which lends a touch of the ironic. The headline on this column, which in fairness may not have come from Sokol, shows an ignorance of the space program. Apollo was the final phase of flights and research that went into the lunar program. It was preceded by the Mercury and Gemini phases, which tested the theories of space flight and maneuvering necessary to achieve the final goal. It took six years to get to Apollo, and even after that, two more years to get to the moon.

I note this because many people put the cart before the horse on implementing renewable energy. Sokol does not; he notes that the technology simply doesn't exist at the moment for mass production of renewable energy. He calls for a twenty-five year program of partnership between government and private enterprise to develop those technologies, a massive effort that will remake American energy production. Sokol argues, effectively, that it will take that kind of effort to succeed in this task.

I suggested this approach eight months ago, but not for the reason that Sokol suggests. Climate change is hardly the defining challenge of our generation, and the headline is doubly ironic for that reason. Apollo was the god of the sun in ancient times, and it's the sun that drives climate change. Unless Sokol intends on controlling the impact of solar cycles on the planet, the program will not have much effect on the climate.

However, energy independence will end the reliance of the world on Middle East kleptocrats for enery resources. That money funds, both directly and indirectly, the terrorism that really is the defining challenge of our generation. Ending the West's dependence on the oil spigots of Arabia will severely undercut the ruling cliques that oppress their people and create the impulses for Islamist terror, as well as strip their ability to directly fund it. Sokol's plan would allow us within a generation to become self-reliant on the energy we need to expand our economy without having the threat of extortion from tinpot dictators.

Sokol has the right idea, even if he has the wrong motivation and a bad headline writer for it.


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Comments (17)

Posted by MarkW | June 22, 2007 7:51 AM

Apollo involved the refining and extending of existing technologies.

Sokoll wants govt to develop technologies that don't exist yet, and do it on a govt decreed timetable.

Wind and solar will NEVER be more than a small fraction of our electrical generating capacity, because they are undependable.

The best, the only, thing govt can do to help solve the energy problem, is to get out of the way.

Stop preventing oil companies from drilling ANWR and offshore.
Stop preventing oil companies from building new refineries.
Allow electric companies to start building nuclear again.
Stop threatening to rob the oil companies every time they make more money than some leftwing politician wants them to make.

The oil companies are already investing massive amounts of money in new sources of oil, tar sands and shale oil, coal to gas, etc.

They know which new technologies are promising, and they have already shown they are quite willing to invest their money, so long as congress doesn't threaten to take away any money they might earn from these new technologies.

As to cars, people have already shown that they are willing to factor in gas economy in their purchasing decisions. Almost every ad I've seen in the last few years includes the vehicles EPA rating. 10 years ago, that info was rarely included.
The problem is that people have many competing desires. Capacity, power, safety. The idea that congress should decide that all other factors must be sacrificed because congress has decided that the only factor that matters is to be fuel economy is not the position that anyone claiming to be conservative should ever make.

Posted by PapaBear | June 22, 2007 7:52 AM

And notice that nuke power is not on their list. What this country really needs is a hundred pebble-bed reactors, reprocessing of spent fuel, and use of plutonium as fuel

Posted by J. Ewing | June 22, 2007 8:00 AM

Yes, the correct term ought to be "alternative energy sources." Renewables is simply some politician's wild-eyed guess as to what the right answer is, which almost guarantees it will be wrong. MarkW is right.

As for nuclear energy, I think we ought to start building "renewable fuel" nuclear plants-- breeder reactors. We know how to do it, but government has gotten in the way, as usual.

Posted by Larry J | June 22, 2007 8:02 AM

A more reasonable energy policy would have 3 main components:

1. Conservation to slow the rate of growth in energy consumption. Even a 1% reduction in the rate of growth results in a big savings over time.

2. Domestic production - increase production from our own sources to reduce dependence on foreign supplies.

3. Alternative technologies - wind and solar power will never be dependable primary supplies but they can contribute to peak production. Nuclear power is a very good primary supplier for electricity. We need to evolve ethanol production away from using food (primarily corn) for energy. It's both inefficient and it drives up the cost of food. Subsidizies can have a place during the R&D phase of alternative energy production, but we need to cap the subsidizies to a fixed number of years, say 5 or 10. If an alternative technology can't survive without subsidizies after 10 years, it deserves to fail.

Posted by Gwedd | June 22, 2007 8:24 AM


For several years, I have argued to anyone in government whom I could corner, that nuclear power is the cornerstone of any future energy program.

My suggestion is to place all nuclear power generation under the direct control of the United States Navy. Develop a single style, small sized reactor similar to what the Navy currently uses on it's submarines, then place these all over the country in a pattern based upon energy use density.

Think about this. The Navy has an ennviable safety record for operating nuclear plants. They have tyhe training school(s) and the backgouns to expand their programs and operate these facilities.

As for a standard design, THAT, more than anything else is wgat is needed. At present, no two civilian reactors are identical. All need custom-made parts and sub-systems. Plant operators cannot transfer from one facility to another without lengthy retraining in the new system.

Turning the power production over to the Navy removes the share-holders and profit from the power generation equation. It places the whole into capable hands with proven track records. It uses established training and operating protocols.

As it stands, the majority of civilian nuclear power personennel are Navy veterans. Why not turn everything over to the Navy and let them get this up and operating?

And I am in full agreement of using pebble-bed technology for nuclear power plants.


Posted by burt | June 22, 2007 8:51 AM

We have had a renewable and air pollution free energy program on the books since before Apollo and it has spent many tens of billions of dollars. It is twenty years from success as it has been for the last five decades. Before that it was thirty years from sucess. It is called controlled fusion.

Most or all of the renewable energy projects pushed by non technical politicians, journalists and environmentalists make little or no sense technically. It will be another case of throwing money at worthless projects with zero or little chance of producing a useful product.

The United States has more fossil fuel resources than Saudi Arabia. Most of it is called coal.

We also have extensive untapped petroleum resources: Alaskan north slope, continental slope, and deep water. We also have enormous oil shale deposits in western Colorado. All of these involve relatively high cost extraction processes esp. oil shale and deep water. However, the current cost of petroleum is high (but not as high as ethanol) and is likely to stay high which would make all of these economically feasible with the possible exception of oil shale.

Posted by burt | June 22, 2007 9:22 AM

Canada, a friendly contiguous neighbor, also has enormous energy resources primarily in the form of oil shale. Extracting oil from shale is a business that is growing like the dot com business grew in the late 90's. It is currently profitable. The current commercial development is in Alberta, a province which is traditionally very friendly with the United States. The known deposits extend over literally thousands of square miles and extends into Saskatchewan.

If we insist on using ethanol rather than gasoline (not a good idea) we could get it cheaper from Brazil a whole lot cheaper than from the corn belt.

Posted by Mike M. | June 22, 2007 9:45 AM

Not only does Canada have enormous oil shale resources, the United States has enormous oil shale resources. Most folks don't even know that the Green River Basin is the largest known fossil fuel deposit in the world.

In addition, we still have enormous coal reserves, and the technology to convert coal to useable fuels has existed for many years.

But it goes without saying that the hard-core leftists will fight to the death to prevent us from actually exploting these resources we have here at home. They don't even really like hydroelectic dams and windmills that much, because of the chance that a bird or a fish might die. Best as I can tell, solar panels are the only thing they seem to give their 100% approval to for energy needs.

Posted by burt | June 22, 2007 9:58 AM

In my last post I wrote that Canada's largest energy resource is oil shale, largely in Alberta. I meant to say oil sands which are also known as tar sands. Canada also has oil shale but not in near the quantity of its oil sands or of our oil shale.

Posted by MarkW | June 22, 2007 10:32 AM

Solar will help with peak demand, during the summer. The sun is shinning brightest, at the same time that it is hottest. Provided an inconvenient cloud doesn't pass over your collectors.

Wind will never be good for peaking, because you just don't know ahead of time, when it will be blowing.

The problem with both these types of alternative energy sources is that standard energy sources can't be turned off and on instantly.

Going from shut down to full production at a coal plant can take a week. Even going from 90% to 91% takes many minutes. The reason for this is thermal stress. You have to heat up and cool down the boilers slowly.

Natural gas turbines are a lot faster, but they still take time, for the same reason. The thermal mass is less, but you still can't stress it too much.

When a cloud passes in front of the solar plant, the electricity from that plant has to be replaced now. Not three or four minutes from now.

Posted by MarkW | June 22, 2007 10:36 AM

We already have a conservation program. It's called high energy prices.

Govt can play a role in educating people about the various conservation options available to them. Politicians can even make a point of nagging people to turn off lights when they leave a room and to turn the thermostat down at night.

But that is about the limits to what role govt should take in encouraging conservation.

(Personally I've been encouraged by the rate white light LED's have been coming down in price. All of the advantages of compact flourescent, with few of the disadvantages.)

Posted by AA | June 22, 2007 1:19 PM

I agree with many of the previous comments. Nuclear is the best proven technology. Developing new technologies would be great, but with a national effort we could build a hundred new nuclear plants in the next 30 years. There are currently 103 operating nuclear plants supplying 20% of US electrical power. One hundred (more efficient/bigger) plants could push that number to 50%. Then double it again.

A couple years ago when Bush announced his grand plan to send a manned ship to Mars I said he was wasting his breath. A real legacy would have been to rebuild the US power grid, power it with nuclear plants, and develop a fleet of viable “primary-electric” cars that would use little or no fuel.

Posted by exDemo | June 22, 2007 2:48 PM

The USA IS conserving; the US produces a much greater GDP per barrel of oil than it used to do. Conservation? Check

Do you know that the US industry doesn't produce any more CO2 than it it did in 1990? Thats the truth.

The Energy law of 2005 was never applauded for what it accomplished.

Easier licensing for combined Construction and Operating Licenses if a standardized design of a Nuclear plant were built. The USA NRC is prepared to review 29 applications from Utilities, under preparation, to construct new plants in the the US after thirty years of zero applications. Nukes are now economic to build and were always economic to operate. Now the build and license cycle is predictable . Thank you, Mr.(unappreciated) Bush.

Posted by KW64 | June 22, 2007 2:58 PM

When I started as the energy conservation engineer 25 years ago at the heavy manufacturing plant I work in, our electricity and natural gas prices were below that of all our foreign competitors. Now that is not the case. Using natural gas for base load electrical generation units is driving up the price of both natural gas and electricity to the point that the viablility of our 100+ year old plant is in serious question.

Why did we make this switch to natural gas for base load units that run 24/7 when traditionally natural gas was only used for peaking units that ran a short period of time? Environmental policies set by liberals that will not abide nuclear power. Now these same liberals are out to kill "clean coal" on a cross of global warming chicken littleism.

Clean coal that doesn't produce NOx and SOx and particulate problems (which are real environmental concerns) is reliable unlike solar and wind,. Its fuel is domestic and cheap which more and more natural gas is not because we are importing expensive LNG now that we consume more natural gas than we produce.

The market calls for Clean Coal and Nuclear power. Having competitive energy intensive industry and the high paying jobs it offers demands them.

Posted by exDemo | June 22, 2007 3:11 PM

Mr. Bush gets no credit. . In the Clinton administration the phony environmentalists killed international cooperation to build the last fusion experiment to prove fusion power before setting ou tto build the first fusion power plant.

Unheralded and unappreciated Mr. Bush painstakingly recreated the international cooperative effort to pay for and construct that ITER fusion reactor in France. He get no credit for that. accomplishment in getting Russia, the EU, China, India, Brazil, the US Japan and S Korea to bring it back to life.

Your grandchildren will never worry about Energy (or Pollution) because of this effort. to complete clean inexhaustible energy source.

Posted by exDemo | June 22, 2007 3:14 PM

The so called Energy bill has raised CAFE to 35 MPG officially. The real CAFE has been raised to above 60 MPG because Senator Levin was unable to expressly prevent State based enviro wackos from imposing their own CAFE levels dwarfing the legal ones by requiring 140g/km CO2 emissions standards and the impossibiliists i California want to do.

The same insomniacs who demanded that all the cars be electrics in the early nineties when there was no technology to do so. All they did was bleed the domestic automakers who tried to do the impossible and wasted billions of dollars trying. Instead of spending the money building better and more efficient and cleaner conventional autos.

In effect the enviro-wackos set back pollution efforts by a decade.. They are about to do so again.

Posted by Jeff Read | June 23, 2007 4:45 AM

The same insomniacs who demanded that all the cars be electrics in the early nineties when there was no technology to do so.