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Needed: An "Apollo Program" for Energy

The world’s critical energy problems require solutions beyond those that policymakers are exploring now.
April 20, 2006

Between worries over climate change caused by fossil fuels and soaring gasoline prices, no one doubts that the world needs new sources of energy. Marty Hoffert, professor emeritus of physics at New York University – who has been conducting research in atmospheric science and alternative energy technologies for three decades – argues that only a radical and disruptive Manhattan Project- or Apollo Program-style approach will work.

Technology Review: Why not let the markets work things out?

Marty Hoffert: Business as usual means we’ll actually be emitting far more CO2, because we’re increasingly turning to coal-burning for our energy. The historical de-carbonization – which went from coal, to oil, to gas, which emit progressively less carbon – will be reversed. Natural gas and oil are hitting their peaks. The shift to coal is already happening in China and India. The United States has reached an inflection point. And there’s little sign right now that this use of coal will be accompanied by CO2 sequestration. Something else has to take up the slack – and it’s a mind-boggling slack. In 2050, we will need between 100 and 300 percent of all the energy we use right now – from totally non-CO2-emitting sources. Consider that today 85 percent of our energy comes from CO2-emitting fossil sources.

TR: How should we address the problem?

MH: Entirely new innovations – potentially disruptive to existing industries – are needed to wean us from oil and natural gas addiction and to zero out CO2 emissions by midcentury. But we can do it – there are precedents. Little more than 60 years separate the Wright Flyer from Neil Armstrong’s “giant step for mankind.” Mere decades elapsed from Steve Jobs’ and Steve Wozniak’s Apple II to today’s lightning-fast laptops, cell phones, and the Internet. John von Neumann, father of the modern computer, believed in the 1950s that only nation-states would be able to afford computers. He would be stunned by our reality.

TR: What’s your solution?

MH: There’s no silver bullet, but there are promising alternate-energy technology options capable of supplying needed levels of primary power in three general categories. The first is coal-gasification power plants producing electricity and hydrogen – but with the CO2 sequestered underground.

The second is new generations of proliferation-resistant nuclear reactors burning fuel bred from U-238 and thorium (and eventually fusion). Because emission-free power needed is so massive in scale, the most important factor to be faced early for nuclear is the need for breeder reactors before commitments are made to “once-through” reactors that will run out of fuel prematurely.

And the third is renewable energy, primarily solar and wind, with innovative transmission and storage technologies deployed at the needed global scale – including space-based solar power.

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.

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