Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Secretary Chu in Newsweek

My dependence on good internet service has been underlined by a week where it has not been available. Unfortunately the motel we were staying at in Maine had a problem with its server, and we returned home to find a problem with our own internet connection. Thus a couple of the posts that I was completing will be a little delayed, until I have that indispensable tool, a good connection. This has been prepared largely without, and similarly posted with access just to find a couple of references.

And in that meantime I have been perusing this week’s NEWSWEEK, on my Kindle, and noted that the Secretary of Energy had a new interview. The first thing that he said in it was in response to a request to define President Obama’s energy policy. Here is what he said:
We look at all the factors and we say, how can we get to the lowest possible level of carbon as quickly as possible and not only at the lowest cost but with the greatest possible economic opportunity for the U.S.?
That’s it!

The rest of the interview was not that much more constructive (one of the benefits of the Kindle is that it counts words, in this case the article – including questions – ran to 782 words - the attempted length of this piece). There was no mention of peak oil, or energy security or prices in the article. In response to the criticism that the Stimulus package did not make enough investment in energy, the Secretary said that they would fund projects for up to three years maximum, and encouraged innovators to “swing for the fences.” Whatever that means (in context)! I will admit to having helped put a couple or more proposals into the DOE hopper, though most came back rather quickly and negatively (one was successful). What struck me about the process, and the attitude redolent in the Secretary’s remarks was the focus on short term benefits and application. Most of the work is also oriented to larger group efforts, with a lot less focus on the smaller innovator to stimulate new ideas. If you can’t claim a home run within the remaining life of this Administration, don’t bother applying.

He appears to hope for a start to a Smarter Electric Grid, to double renewable energy contributions by 2012, and to get the nuclear power plant construction industry restarted in this term. But he also recognizes that carbon capture and sequestration is at least 10-years away from deployment. His “blue sky” hopes are for cheap (below $2) per watt photo-voltaic systems, (current costs he quoted as being over $4) and he still looks to the generation of fuels such as gasoline directly from biomass. This is not the ethanol production that the industry and government are still heavily involved in, but rather focuses back on the work he was supporting while at LBNL looking at using natural fauna to do the digestion and fuel generation.

But he returned to the need to put a price on carbon, and for a cap-and-trade bill to make sure that the point on where his focus was, would not be missed.

Sigh! He sounds as though the “scientist in a tower” description still fits him like a glove. There are considerable issues in regard to the changing energy supply of the planet that should be giving him pause in his charge against carbon. Increasing numbers of people are pointing to a coming crisis in oil supply. The British government, at the urging of folk such as the head of Virgin Airways, has decided that perhaps it is about time that it took its head out of the sand, and took a hard look at the situation. Of course it is also taking a look at the reality of climate change predictions, though with the coming of a general election, it is not clear whether either effort will amount to much.

I am increasingly struck by the perception that many of the folk that write about both climate change and energy supply do so with a very complacent attitude toward the continuing situation. The potential impact from a major impact on climate from a severe eruption of the Laki suite of volcanoes in Iceland seems to be being totally ignored. (A quick skim through some of the scientific papers suggests that the major eruption follows within a couple of years of the current eruption of the smaller volcano). The problem is that should there be a problem, running around in a panic for a couple of days is going to do nothing constructive in stopping folk from being killed.

Well we will have to see, in the relatively short term, whether that complacency is warranted. Being a Cassandra is unlikely to get more recognition this time around.

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