April 28, 2006

An “Apollo Program” for energy

Charles Cooper whined (his word) at length about President Bush’s speech on R&D and energy independence. And he rightly pointed out the hypocrisy of Bush praising DARPA’s track record and then starving it for funds. Finally he called for a “Manhattan Project” for energy-independence technologies; I think this is a good idea, although I’d use the “Space Program” or “War on Cancer” analogies instead (more spinoffs in each case, for one thing, and each led to huge returns even though decades afterward we have neither an effective space program nor a reliable cure for cancer).

But here’s the thing he forgot to add — a lot of the startup technology community is already looking toward sustainable energy and the like. To mention just two names, I’m pretty sure that’s the current career focus of both Jesse Berst and Beryl Hartman; I think you’ll also find it cropping up in classic venture portfolios as well.

With the proper seeding to overcome the obvious massive subsidies given to the traditional energy economy, an alternative energy technology industry could have four huge benefits:

1. Economic growth from the industry itself (including worldwide export)

2. Further economic benefit by lowering the demand for and hence price curve of current fossil fuels.

3. Easing of geopolitical/military pressures associated with competition for and security of oil supplies.

4. (Depending on the technology used) Possibly huge environmental benefits.

Few of you know this, but I spent a fair amount of time working on energy policy during my public policy post-doc, and took a nuclear engineering course even before that. And PaineWebber initially interviewed me as an energy analyst, before hiring me to cover the technology industry of my choice (which turned out to be software). So while I’m hardly an expert, I’m speaking from a little experience when I suggest the following:

A 3 1/2-pronged government initiative focusing on:

A. Synthetic fossil fuels

B. Fission/fusion power

C. To the extent they can contribute, truly clean/renewal energy sources

D. Infrastructure to support electricity-centric transportation, to be ready if and when B&C are successful.

Why synthetic fossil fuels? Because nothing else is sure to work, given the political concerns about fission (including proliferation) and the technical issues remaining with fusion. Why not only synthetic fossil fuels? Because they do nothing to help with global warming (probably they even exacerbate the problem a little bit due to the energy cost of their creation), and otherwise they’re not great environmentally either.

Frankly, I think the right answer for a number of decades is fission power. There should be a very limited number of utterly standard reactor designs, each of which comes complete with a rigorous set of standard site requirements (especially in the areas of geology and security). There should be no pretense for the next 50 years or so about a truly permanent solution for nuclear waste disposal; in the short term it should be processed into a stable, solid, transportable form (“bricks”) and left in a few big toxic brick piles near the processing plants. (Possibly these even need to be part of the standard reactor-compound design.)

That’s if the reactors are to be privately owned, as they are today. A perhaps even more sensible alternative is to have them be Federally owned and operated, just as (say) aircraft carriers are today. That would help a lot with security issues; what’s more, while the government generally isn’t too good at getting the best out of its employees, one area where it (specifically, the military) excels is in training and managing people to do boring, repetitive, somewhat technical, life-and-death-important work.

Where does the “Manhattan/Apollo Program” aspect come in? Well, on the nuclear side, it’s getting those reactors designed and then built ASAP. In synfuels it can be a reverse auction, offering to buy “X” amount of fuel during period “Y” in the future at cost “Z”, with Z being what is bid on (the lower the better). Possibly the auction should be preannounced, only being actually held after environmental regulations and the like are more fully addressed. On the electric transportation side (hydrogen, batteries, whatever), a good point of attack might be trucking. Trucks are regulated, not as fashion/consumer-oriented as passenger cars, not as needful of maximum acceleration as cars, and more tolerant than cars of parts being a bit oversized. Getting the trucking fleet off of fossil fuels is probably achievable in a shorter term than it would be to wean cars from gasoline.


2 Responses to “An “Apollo Program” for energy”

  1. The Monash Report»Blog Archive » Shai Agassi – a contrarian view on March 28th, 2007 7:20 pm

    […] My own take on future energy technology. (April, 2006) […]

  2. An Apollo Program for Alternative Energy? on January 17th, 2008 12:20 am

    […] Many people have called for an “Apollo program” to speed the development of alternatives sources of energy. This is a better analogy than people realize. […]

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