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National Clean Energy Based on Energy Abundance

Tue, 10/12/2010 - 11:14am
JIM LANE, Editor & Publisher, Biofuels Digest

Jim LaneBy JIM LANE, Editor & Publisher, Biofuels Digest

SynGest’s CEO, Jack Oswald, tells me that it’s a mistake to be thinking about simply shifting from an energy-starved world based on fossil fuel reserves to an energy-starved world based on clean energy.

“What we need is energy abundance,” he concludes, pointing out that the new, risky and expensive focus on, for example, energy storage and battery systems, is in most respects the outcome of having imagined a world with too little energy available, where every electron is precious.

Better, he said, to set a goal of having so much energy supply available that, as in older days, we simply didn’t need to think about energy storage in the same ways.

“If you have enough energy, you don’t have to think twice about pumping the water of some gigantic Lake Tahoe two thousand feet further up the mountain, and using that proven system for energy storage. We don’t have the abundant, affordable energy to do it now, so we end up with ARPA-E prescribing outcomes by setting up energy storage as a critical national technology goal. We still have to develop the same energy systems. Scarcity makes us think and act in different ways, not always to our advantage. Doing ‘a little bit of everything’ is a strategy for failure.”

Oswald has a point. You can read his “Clean Energy 2.0: A National Clean Energy Strategy” presentation here, adapted from the one he delivered last month at TED (Technology, Entertainment and Design – one of the most-sought after speaking gigs on the planet).

“In a nutshell, I wanted to create a model of a carbon-free energy system that would leverage the power of our markets to construct the best possible solution in the shortest possible time.” Looking at the five essential energy platforms: the sun’s core, the earth’s core, gravity, nuclear and fossil reserves, he opted for solar, within which biomass and wind are subsets.

Developing a Dialogue, Not a Diktat

His goal is not prescriptive, but to stimulate a conversation about our real energy goals, and the theme of energy abundance is as good a goal as I have heard in a month of Sundays. His “Clean Energy 2.0? will not please those whose preferred technique is to await grand proposals and reduce them to embers via the fine-toothed combs that find all the devils in all the details.

“Clean Energy 2.0? suggests a focus on a solar-based solution. Whether that embraces the photoelectric effect (what we know today as solar) or photosynthesis (what we know today as biomass) is left to be decided by others in a future where the focus is on clean energy, the investment is based on government-set (or investor-set) performance standards, and risk is relatively tolerated for well-thought proposals that combine strong concepts with the potential for scale.

Energy efficiency - he sees it as an extender that buys time in the near term and makes energy abundance easier to achieve in the long term.

Population control - he suggests that improved health care and personal wealth has been shown to retard family size, and that energy abundance will play a role in helping to stabilize the global population at around 9 billion.

“Quick ROI,” he said, “will raise awareness, begin to change behavior, breed a culture of success, and get everyone’s head in the game.” Accordingly, he cautions against the current policy of “trying to do a little bit of everything,” suggesting that it leads to too many delays, too little funding for true R&D, too little funding for scale, and too much failure which defeats the goal of building public confidence in the new clean energy platforms.

It’s an interesting counter-thesis to the “portfolio concept” being pursued by the DOE and others. I am not sure whether it would be greeted as good news by the R&D community, where researchers famously spend so much of their time preparing grant applications, providing progress updates and defending results — or whether it would be viewed as bad news by those who fear being left out in the cold.

Winners & Losers

Energy AbundanceOswald discussed the problem of winners and losers. He agreed that, at a high level, clean energy runs the same risk as U.S. health care — of attracting too few friends, and courting too many enemies among entrenched interests. Corporations who are doing well under the old systems are rarely tempted to support wholesale changes in energy platforms unless they see abundant opportunities to “win” in the new world that is envisioned.

Companies that fear they are “on the out” are far more likely to participate in the transformation of the old economy by waging well-funded campaigns of “fear, uncertainty and doubt” against the new, trusting that old slogans like “government takeover” and new ones like “death panels” will awaken old fears among the citizenry, who are generally too engaged in the business of paying the bills to pay much attention to the finer points of detail in massive federal legislation.

So, the Digest will caution that “energy abundance” will only occur if there is “opportunity abundance” for the broad range of entrenched interests.

But overall, we believe it is a commendable concept, worthy as an international goal. The Digest has long rejected the “less is more” view of its brethren in the environmental community, where goals are based in reducing lifestyles and a certain self-denying, puritan streak of the Ed Begley type that is as easy to admire as it is to be sure that it will not succeed. Well-meaning, wealthy people – that is to say, those with “money abundance” — can put solar photovoltaic cells on their rooftops because it is the “right thing to do”, irrespective of ROI.

The Realities of ROI

The world as a whole operates on cost and very short paybacks. Solar panels and biofuels have the market share they have today not because they are difficult ideas to embrace, but because they are too expensive. Rising prices, not scarcity, were the root cause of the food vs. fuel hurricane. With stable prices, the noise has abated considerably, but we will hear the drumbeat again whenever corn prices rise again. Feed-in tariffs that massively subsidize the cost of solar panels are the reason that solar has been widely introduced in Germany and so rarely in the sun-drenched American Southwest.

It is the case with ethanol as well. Sell E85 for $3.00 per gallon and you won’t move many gallons, and will hear a lot about the “ethanol scam”. Sell E85 for $0.85 per gallon, and the lines form around the corner.

Current clean energy platforms must generate and then extract — whether it is solar, biomass or wind — and compete with extractive fossil fuel technologies.

A New Niagara

The world that Oswald imagines is likely only to come to pass if there is cheap, abundant, clean energy. We talk in terms of the Apollo program, but really should be talking in terms of the original hydroelectric project at Niagara Falls — that was the one true era in which energy was cheap, and clean, and there was more available than needed.

So, let the debate begin. Is it a better world in which we find ways to use less fossil energy, or in fact is the answer at Niagara Falls? Should “cheap, clean, abundant energy” become the national priority (and designed so that entrenched interests see a better future in it for themselves), or should we continue down the path we are heading, with so many little bets on clean energy, creating too few winners and too many losers, with a goal of only perpetuating the scarcity that currently makes more volatile the global business model.

Clean Energy 2.0: A National Clean Energy Strategy

Copyright 2010; Biofuels Digest; All rights reserved

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