TR: What’s the best strategy for transforming the energy infrastructure away from fossil fuels?
RC: Energy efficiency is the low-hanging fruit now, but it won’t get us as far as we need to get. The next big strategic view would try at least to change our transportation away from liquid-hydrocarbon-based internal combustion engines to electric-drive vehicles. If you can do that, you open up the possibility of using renewable and nuclear to make electricity. But as it is now, we cannot trade oil for electricity, because even if we had abundant wind and solar and nuclear electricity, we can’t use them in our transportation fleet. The research agenda would be on the effective widespread production of renewable and nuclear electricity, with storage of the electricity–which is the problem for wind and solar, of course–and distribution. This is where the electric power grid comes in, to move electricity longer distances without significant losses, extending it in terms of quantitative capacity and geographic spread, to reach the strategic goal of using electricity for transportation, as well as more renewable electricity to replace coal electricity.
TR: And longer term?
RC: Completely replacing fossil fuels, if that is the long-term goal–there you have to bring in more far-out technologies, like completely new materials for photovoltaics that take you three and ten times better than we have now. The electrolytic splitting of water to make hydrogen, for example–the demonstrations by Daniel Nocera at MIT and his Caltech colleagues of at least some laboratory-scale feasibility–could open up a pathway which otherwise might not be the one you go for: hydrogen fuel.
TR: Could new kinds of nuclear power be a big part of the answer beyond a couple of decades?
RC: Yes, as well as the kind of renewable energy for electrolysis of water, which most people wouldn’t have thought was the way we wanted to go. But if it turns out to work, then the question is, can we make hydrogen into a storage medium of choice?
TR: But isn’t federal nuclear R & D, if not dead, at least on life support?
RC: That’s right.
TR: That needs to change?
RC: I think so. We haven’t done a lot of what I would call university-scale research on nuclear. The U.S. has invested in large programs in fission and fusion. If you want to be involved in that work, you have to be a member of one of those huge teams which are now essentially international. There are people out there with ideas for alternative processes making electricity out of nuclear processes–different fusion targets, different mixtures of deuterium and helium and lithium and boron–and a lot of ideas haven’t been pushed very far.
TR: Do we need a federal research effort on planet-wide geo-engineering to limit warming by, for example, blocking some sunlight?
RC: I think we need the research. I try to separate research–essentially on paper–from tinkering with the system in the real world. Actual intervention to try a large-scale fix or solution–I think we should put some fences around that. There are a lot of necessary conditions that we haven’t started to seriously think about yet. But research, on the other hand, is not being encouraged, and I think it has to be.
RC: Well, we’re going to learn about the system. For example, the iron fertilization of the ocean idea [to absorb carbon dioxide] that came out in 1990-91. It led to some really good science being done. I think the current reading is that iron fertilization is unlikely to be of much help. But what we’ve learned about the oceans has been extremely valuable. And I think a lot of geo-engineering research will probably lead us to say, “You know, this isn’t going to work, but we’ve learned a lot in the meantime.”
TR: So it’s not worth pursuing for its own sake, but for the ancillary benefits?
RC: Well, it’s too soon to say. I’ll be very surprised if geo-engineering research leads to a solution–very, very surprised.