Posted by: bmeverett | September 29, 2008

Myth #5: All we need to do is replace oil with renewable energy, and we’re home free!

Senator Obama tells us in his Lansing speech:

Then [1973], the technology and innovation to create new sources of clean, affordable, renewable energy was a generation away. Today, you can find it in the research labs of this university and in the design centers of this state’s legendary auto industry. It’s in the chemistry labs that are laying the building blocks for cheaper, more efficient solar panels, and it’s in the re-born factories that are churning out more wind turbines every day all across this country.

This statement is the most fundamental misconception in our energy debate today: the failure to distinguish between “neat ideas” and commercial technologies. Take computers, for example. People experimented with mechanical computing machines for centuries. Charles Babbage established the principles of a “difference engine,” a system of cranks and gears designed to solve polynomial equations, in the early 19th century. A hundred years later, mechanical adding machines could add and subtract. Around the time of World War II, electronic calculating machines were able, for example, to help crack the German military codes. During the 1950s and 1960s, mainframe computers were used by banks, the military and research facilities to perform complex calculations. Although the design and engineering of these machines was well know, it wasn’t until the 1970s, with the invention of the PC, that computers became available to the average person. The PC was developed not by either a government research program or by large companies like IBM. It was developed by college drop-outs working on a shoestring.

The Apollo Project is another common symbol of our technological prowess. Landing men on the moon was indeed an impressive and inspiring accomplishment, but let’s look at what we actually achieved. We landed 12 astronauts on the moon at a total cost of about $150 billion (in today’s dollars) – about $12 billion per astronaut. The program was never designed to make space travel affordable to the average person.

We do indeed have lots of neat energy ideas in the labs and on drawing boards, but how do these ideas move from the conceptual stage to commercial technologies. For the last 30 years, we have been laboring under the delusion that a few dollars of government research money can convert ideas into economically viable technologies at the drop of a hat. Our experience with fusion ought to give us pause.

Fission energy, the source of today’s nuclear power plants, splits heavy atoms into lighter ones, releasing energy in the process. Fusion, on the other hand, combines light elements into heavier ones, releasing even more energy. One pound of heavy hydrogen can produce energy equivalent to about 1,000 gallons of gasoline. We know all about the idea of this energy source from successful testing of hydrogen bombs.

Government research on fusion power began in the 1950s, and expectations were high. By the 1970s, government researchers were confident that the technology could be commercially available by the year 2000. The latest Department of Energy budget requests suggest a test plant could be up and running around 2050. Fusion may prove to be the first government program whose schedule slips 100 years!

Over the last 30 years, the US Government has spent more than $125 billion on energy research, yet produced nothing of any commercial consequence. Should we really expect that another $100-200 billion, as proposed by our presidential candidates, will produce better results? New research might produce a breakthrough, but then again lottery tickets can produce riches. The odds, however, are very low.

All politicians, particularly Al Gore, love to portray themselves as techno-geeks conversant with all the latest technologies. We can easily create the illusion of commerciality by subsidizing a small amount of expensive technology. Without extensive federal and state subsidies, there would be virtually no solar power, wind power or ethanol in the US. These subsidies are based on the view that more research and increased scale will bring the costs of these technologies down into the commercial range.

Suppose we set as our goal that every American family should be able to drive a Mercedes. We offer a $50,000 subsidy on the first 1,000 cares sold, $25,000 on the second 1,000 and $10,000 on the third 1,000 cars sold. What would this accomplish? Nothing. It’s most unlikely that the price of Mercedes vehicles would drop much as a result of this program. What it would do is give the authors of the program a few years in which they could predict great results. By the time the reality set in, they would be on to other things.

Technology has never come from government planning. Real innovation comes from the private sector, and often from remote parts of the private sector.

Technology is a paradox. Over the next 50 years, technology will revolutionize the way we produce and consume energy. We cannot, however, control the process of technology development nor even predict its course. The world 50 years from now will be different not only from today’s world, but from anything we can even imagine.



  1. Fusion may be closer than you think:

    Fusion Report 29 August 2008

  2. I never dismiss any technology. Fusion may very well happen some day, but I have been hearing about how close we are for the last 35 years. Remember the “cold fusion” fiasco of the late 1980s.

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