TR: Seems like we’ve been hearing about these kinds of technologies for years, even decades.
MH: These are not “on the shelf.” They exist in the sense that nuclear weapons existed in the late ’30s and that crewed lunar vehicles existed in the ’50s. It took efforts like the Manhattan and Apollo programs to make them so.
TR: Wind turbines are sprouting all over the place, aren’t they?
MH: We do need to massively scale up renewable energy – it’s the most ready for prime-time. But we don’t have a grid system, an energy storage system, to take up the major load from wind. That would require restructuring our electrical grid and building new kinds of storage devices. We need something like that to get renewable energy working, but we don’t have it, or the social institutions to allow that to happen, because the electrical utilities have been deregulated. Nobody is responsible for these electrical distribution grids. That’s got to change. And even though we are devoting resources to thermonuclear fusion, we have no comparable programs for solar power satellites or vastly expanding the electric distribution grid, for distributed solar energy.
TR: You alluded to breeder reactors, arguing that they make more efficient use of uranium supplies. Many say their production of bomb-grade plutonium is an unacceptably high price to pay.
MH: We believe there are technological approaches to the proliferation question. One approach is a global electrical grid, as proposed by Buckminster Fuller in the 1970s. You could produce power from breeder reactors in the secure parts of the world, and sell the electrons to the Saddam Husseins. The grid can be your nonproliferation treaty. High-temperature superconductors and carbon nanotubes can help make long-distance, low-loss transmission lines.
TR: Won’t the high cost of fossil drive the economics for these things to happen naturally?
MH: One problem is that policy analysts working on global warming mitigation are dominated by economists, not engineers, and most don’t have any clue that these things are not only possible, but exist in the laboratories today. We hear talk of carbon taxes and that the natural workings of the economics system will generate this technology. The truth is that’s not the way it works at all historically. Since World War II, the development of everything from gas turbines to integrated circuits to the Internet were all devised by R&D paid for by the government. We should target the R&D we need to make the energy system sustainable.