Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Dr Chu's Hearing leaves me worried.

Looking back a day after watching Dr Steven Chu testify at the hearing before the Senate on his nomination to be Secretary of Energy, I think my overall reaction is “We’d better not be right!’ Yes, from the point of view of those that are seriously concerned about the climate, and the control of carbon, there is no question but that, to quote Andrew Leonard “listening to Chu is like listening to a dream.” Unfortunately, for those of us more concerned with how we get through the coming shortages of oil and natural gas, the message was not nearly as encouraging.

As I noted in my initial reaction yesterday, Dr Chu sees the role of the National Labs and the scientists within them, as a critical part of the answer, and fully expects that it will be they that lead us into that golden future. To which I think I am tempted to respond, that so far all the trust and money we have given to those “best and brightest” to get us to nuclear fusion hasn’t yet worked out. And I think it might similarly be the case in regard to the major effort that he anticipates putting into cellulosic ethanol as the saving technology to provide for us all.

And the other message that I clearly picked up differed from the perception that others had of him renouncing his earlier opposition to coal. What I heard and saw him saying was that unless there is an acceptable CCS (carbon capture and storage) technology, then he is still very strongly concerned about coal use. Further that in the near term there may well be no need to install any new coal-fired power plants since, just as in California, we can adopt significant conservation, load shifting, and increasingly efficient appliances and buildings, and keep the current load stable.

He pointed out that while power demand had risen in the rest of the country by 50%, the power demand per capita in California had remained stable for a considerable time (I think he said 35 years). This is something, therefore, that the rest of the country should adopt, given that it is the lowest hanging, and easiest fruit to pick. (Plus in relative terms it is not as expensive as some of the alternatives).

My take on this is that it is very theoretical, and perhaps easier to consider those steps if you live in Southern California than if you are battling 20 degrees below temperatures and the bad weather that is currently meandering along our northern borders.

He does recognize that one of the major steps that should be taken is through the development of more nuclear power plants. And he recognized the serious problems that still hang around the cleanup operations at Hanford (though whether he will give them an additional $2 billion or so to accelerate the process was left open to question). He dodged the long-term storage of nuclear waste issue, but was positive about taking a longer and perhaps in light of current perceptions, more rational review of the recycling of nuclear fuel. But certainly one of the resources for the future will be the construction and use of more nuclear power stations, ho pointed out that it provides 70% of the non-carbon electricity generating base load today. The only concern with that is the time that it will take to get them installed and contributing to the national supply. Certainly it will be long after he has left the Department before their impact will be felt.

And that is where I started to feel the concerns. He seemed very much of the mind that “the best and the brightest” scientists, if persuaded by money and their interest in working on problems of national interest, could be retrained and redirected to come up with answers. He sees as a major resource to help with this the 30,000 scientists and engineers that currently staff the National Labs (and just might put another one up in New England). It is around that nucleus that he expects the answers to come.

His current work has been supervising teams that have, among other things, been looking at the way bacteria inside termites for example, convert woody material into the fuels that can be used to displace gasoline, diesel fuel and jet fuel. Thus he sees cellulosic ethanol as a major contributor (it is mandated to be half of the 36 billion gallons of ethanol that must be produced and used).

This is still very much a lab bench type of study, the Hirsch report, Dixie Lee Ray and I have all at one time or another pointed out that it will take over 20 years, even without any slip-ups or glitches along the way, to get something from the bench to where it is making a significant contribution to the national need.

But I have two other worries that go along with this. The first may seem trivial, but I was at a meeting where we were discussing the harvesting and collection of products for a cellulosic plant. It turned out that the costs were about $60 a ton. Come the scientist working on cellulosic and he retorted that all it would take would be some of the "best and brightest” working on the problem for a year or two and they could get it down to the $4 a ton that he had used in his model.

Um! Man (and woman) has been harvesting crops for a rather long time. To suggest that a bunch of scientists/engineers can suddenly look at the problem and in virtually no time learn all that there is to know and bingo produce a new method that will cut costs of production 15-fold displays an attitude that is really worrisome, because it is totally unrealistic.

The other thing that I felt was not really addressed in the hearing was the factor of time. I did not feel that he had any sense of the imminence of the gasoline and oil shortages that will come to pass, nor what to do when they do. And so I just hope we are wrong, but sadly, I really don't think that we are.