Alternative Energy, Energy Independence and Global Warming Reduction

PlanetWatch Editor on Short List for Transportation Secretary

Editor Mort Downey, who regularly contributes political and legislative analysis to these pages (most recently, see "Energy Issues..." here), is a former deputy secretary of the Transportation Department, and is now on the short list for that department's top job in the Obama Administration (click here and scroll to "Transportation Secretary").

The Washington Post reported, "Word is some seriously heavy hitters have been recruited to focus on plans for various agencies. Mortimer L. Downey, who served as No. 2 in the Department of Transportation for eight years under Clinton, is expected to take a lead role in transition planning for the department".

The short list may have grown shorter. Just announced: Mort has been named the head of the 15-person transtiion team for the DoT, charged to evaluate the department's readiness to implement new Administration initiatives.

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Rethinking Energy Priorities

The noise level arising from the din of energy proposals that besieges us every day — from the media, from organizations that lobby for our support, from the presidential campaign just past, from Congressional rhetoric — tends to jam clearer thinking about what is fundamentally needed as the nation’s overarching energy policy.

We need to stay focused on the objective, and then work our way back to figure out how to get there. As we’ll see, a more "holistic" approach to how best to resolve the critically important problems — problems created by our lifestyle of luxurious energy consumption — need not mean reduced standards of living in order to achieve good results. Long, hot showers can still be enjoyed. Transportation can still be by private car when public transport does not satisfy. Air travel will still be available, albeit at higher cost. Houses will still be warm in winter and cool in summer.

But, if we do not substitute renewable and non-polluting energy sources for those we now employ, we will not succeed. And it is going to take a lot of invention, investment, and systemic change. Government involvement must be greater than in the past.

There is plenty of energy available, but most is in a form that will require us to modify our ways of using it. Bridging the gap between the present and the future will require us to conserve energy almost instinctively; most thoughtful experts believe we can save nearly half the energy we now consume by adopting a mindset that recognizes that treating energy as nearly free no longer makes any sense, if it ever did. If the cost is high, that will come naturally. If not, it might require fiat.

With that as backdrop, here is a framework for thinking about the problem coherently.

MOTOR FUEL EASILY AVAILABLE? IN THEORY, NOT LIKELY We use energy in dozens of ways. Most uses are stationery, like heating our houses, or lighting our streets, or cooking our food. But moving a car, truck, train or ship requires that energy be "portable". Powering airplanes is even more demanding, since its energy source has to be light enough to carry around at 38,000 feet, while containing enough power per pound to achieve useful results.

If we were "inventing the world" for the first time, we would have to invent a fuel that did not evaporate or explode between zero and 200 degrees F, that burned well at higher temperatures, and released impressive amounts of energy. We would formulate it, and then find a way to manufacture it in quantities large enough to use. Without it, we could not fly from here to there. However, we could travel on the surface, because alternatives exist for powering cars, trains, trucks and buses. Ships are a bit more problematic.

That motor fuel (gasoline, diesel and jet fuel) can be relatively easily refined from naturally occurring liquid crude oil is an extremely lucky, and most unlikely, development. Its availability has created the impression, until recently, that "portable energy" is so cheap as to be almost free, and so plentiful as to be virtually limitless. No longer can we think like that.

So, we urge our members to think of motor fuel in a new way: as the only energy source that is portable and light enough to fuel an airplane. The other uses of motor fuel have viable substitutes, ones that are both cleaner and renewable, and, increasingly, we must use them.

RENEWABLE SOURCES SHARE SOME COMMON TRAITS By now, we are all familiar with the major sources of renewable energy: wind, solar, hydroelectric, wave action, geothermal and nuclear. The first four are variations on solar. The last two are different, but when you really think about it, they too are a form of "solar", just in a more direct way. Each of these sources is used today, and we expect them all to exhibit enormous growth in future decades. Another trait they all share is that the form of energy most easily extracted from them is electricity, which has some unique strengths and weaknesses. First, it is relatively easily transmitted, at least over short distances. Second, it is devilishly hard to store, so it is often subject to "use it or lose it" rules, especially in the case of solar and wind, which are transitory. (Notice how diametrically opposed it is to motor fuel in these ways).

WHAT ARE THE BROAD IMPLICATIONS? Here we are with fossil fuels (coal, crude oil and natural gas) running out, polluting the atmosphere and causing geopolitical upheaval. Meanwhile, we are using these fuels to generate the majority of our electricity, the very form of energy that is most easily produced from renewable sources. How crazy is that?

What we must do is introduce policies and incentives to ensure that we use almost exclusively renewables for electricity *and* that we use as much of that electricity as we can to replace motor fuel for vehicles. How can these goals be accomplished? First, we need to build out wind, solar, geothermal and nuclear sources as rapidly as we can. Second, we need to improve our "grid" for delivering electricity efficiently over long distances, Third, we need, almost more than anything, to develop ways to store electrical energy for reuse at other times in other places (more on this below), Fourth, we need to deploy millions of plug-in electrical vehicles (both pure electrics and hybrids) so that motor fuel use is greatly reduced. Fifth, we need to electrify as many trains and buses as we can. Sixth, we need to consider nuclear power for at least our larger ships (this may not be economic, but needs to be studied). Last, we need to preserve as much motor fuel as we can for aviation, since it is the only major energy use for which there is not yet a renewable energy source. Under this scenario, virtually all the remaining fossil fuels would eventually be converted into aviation fuel, with some needed for smaller ships and boats. Eventually, we will need to deploy synthetic gasoline made from natural gas, coal and even biomass.

OUR BIGGEST CHALLENGE: STORING ELECTRICAL ENERGY We all know that batteries store electrical energy nicely. But, they are heavy and expensive, so literally hundreds of projects are underway now around the world to make them cheaper, lighter and more safely disposable. We applaud these efforts, but do not believe they will be sufficient. Instead, we detect a need to store electricity vastly more effectively, perhaps the way nature stores the sun's energy through photosynthesis. Interestingly, there are signs that we are doing this. MIT scientists have a promising new catalyst that uses electrical energy to make hydrogen from water, oxygen and carbon dioxide. (Sound familiar?.....synthetic photosynthesis.)

This may not be "the one" but we believe someone will get it right, eventually. And when they do, we can convert electricity that is not needed at that moment into hydrogen which can then be moved to other places and times for use in fuel cells to power cars, trucks, trains, and ships.

In the end, we will have abundant energy from renewables, very little carbon dioxide produced, and ample capacity to store valuable energy for when we need it, and where.

The writer was struck forcibly by visiting Bonneville Dam on the Columbia River in Oregon this past summer. Over two thirds of the more than one million kilowatts available on that July day were being dumped through the spillway because there was no then-current need for the power. If there had been a facility for turning one hour of that wasted power into hydrogen, it could have powered thousands of cars for a year, according to officials at the site.

And they were not embarrassed to admit it, even with the monetary value of the wasted power being about $75,000 per hour. (The financial value of a flow of cash like that would be "worth" well over three billion dollars, rivaling the cost of the dam itself.) What an incredible opportunity lost!

This example of available energy being wasted is duplicated hundreds of times all over the country in wind farms, solar energy farms, hydroelectric plants and geothermal sites. The missing elements are: 1) transmission capacity, and 2) storage capacity.

If we conserve a large part of the half of our energy we are wasting, build a better electrical grid, and (most importantly) create means of storing electrical energy as hydrogen when the demand for electricity is below the supply, we can deal with these problems, keep our economy growing, control damage to the climate and reduce our dependence on other nations for our energy needs. In fact the program we need to make this happen may be just the economic stimulus we need to get out of this impending recession.

Douglas Ayer