Let the Sunshine In: A Solar Power Blog

March 13, 2010

Of Tasty Cars and Tasteless Politicians: A Tale of Two Energy Conventions

According to all the reports I’ve read on the MIT Energy Conference, held last weekend in Boston, it was really two conferences. Conference One proved that, with the right funding and the right minds to take advantage of it, tremendous things are being done (and even more can be done) in the field of clean energy research. Conference Two proved that, outside the golden world of green tech science, the same old climate change denying and sheer incompetence still reign in the less-than-golden world of public policy.

First the good news: the breakthroughs, real and potential, by MIT researchers, whose work on clean energy tech was praised by Barack Obama last fall, are truly impressive. One team is exploring the potential of particles called excitons, the mechanism for light emission in semiconductors. The goal would be to create thin-film, non-tracking solar cells with power efficiencies greater than 30%. Another team is exploring ways to replace expensive copper parts in solar thermophotovoltaic (STPV) systems with cheap plastic parts. The principle is that, as long as there is some kind of heat source, the cell can generate light, which in turn can generate energy even when the sun isn’t shining.

A third team is dealing with a related problem: energy storage, a major difficulty with intermittent energy sources, like wind and solar. Compared to 15% in Japan, only 2.5% of the capacity of the U.S. energy grid can now be stored. The solution that one scientist has proposed are gigantic liquid metal batteries (to be kept at temperatures of around 700 degrees Celsius) to act as “frequency regulators” that would keep energy flowing to consumers if power from the energy source is suddenly cut off. A fourth team is working on a cobalt phosphate catalyst that would split water into hydrogen and oxygen cheaply. If research is successful, three liters of water could conceivably power a home. This technology would be particularly useful for the developing world, where there is often little or no existing electricity-generating infrastructure.

But the star of the conference was unquestionably… Lola! Lola is a Formula 3 racing car, created by the University of Warwick, constructed entirely of renewables, including carrots, potato starch and flax, and fueled by… chocolate. Developed over 9 months at a cost of $200,000, it has a top speed of 135 mph and can go from zero to 60 in 2.5 seconds. Its engine runs on diesel, not gasoline, and can even run on fuel derived from chocolate factory waste and other vegetable-based oils. Its radiator even converts ozone back into oxygen, literally cleaning up the atmosphere as it runs.

In dramatic contrast to these encouraging — even astonishing — innovations is the decidedly uninspiring, indeed downright depressing state of national energy policy. Of course, we already knew that the facts were grim. But Nobuo Tanaka, who spoke at the conference in behalf of the International Energy Agency (IEA), brought us down even further with his statistics on the state of climate change and what is really needed to combat it. The multi-trillion dollar investment that is needed to stabilize the climate would require, according to Tanaka, the construction and deployment of:

  • 18 nuclear power plants
  • 17,000 wind turbines
  • At least 2 huge hydroelectric plants
  • 94 (I have no idea where he gets that precise number) new solar power plants per year between now and 2030.

And all that is only to maintain the projected target of 450 parts of carbon emissions per million in the atmosphere, which would nonetheless still raise the earth’s temperature 2 degrees Celsius. As I disagree with the viability or safety of nuclear power plants (see previous post), a lot more wind and solar generators than Tanaka’s estimate would be required to compensate. And many activists and others think that 350 parts per million is the only safe target. Yet Tanaka insists that the target of 450 per million is “science fiction” if this massive investment does not take place.

One  of the chief conference speakers was John Rowe, CEO of Exelon, the nation’s largest electric utility company and the owner of the biggest fleet of nuclear power plants in the U.S. He stated that pro-climate government regulation was “in my economic self-interest.” (This statement apparently makes more sense now than it would have a short while ago, since President Obama mysteriously decided recently that nuclear power is renewable energy.) Rowe emphasized that the government should establish and maintain a steady, consistent policy, and the American consumer should understand that there’s no free lunch: combating climate change is going to involve some personal cost. However, he rejected government regulation as a solution. Bringing out a chart of what he called 27 potential EPA regulations, he referred to it as a “train wreck” that would cost utilities billions of dollars and provide jobs only for lawyers.

He asserted that carbon pricing — either a carbon tax, or cap-and-trade (preferably the latter) — was the only way to fulfill the four goals of a viable energy policy:

  • Cleaner energy
  • Greater energy security
  • Job creation
  • Lowest possible cost.

Senator Jeff Bingaman of New Mexico, chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, who gave the closing keynote speech, brought back the latest news from the Beltway… and it was not good. In contrast to Rowe, he affirmed that clean tech could not be realized without a major shift in government policy, including new regulations. The chances of that happening soon in partisan Washington, however, said Bingaman, are slim. He perceived a pattern whereby the U.S. creates an innovation (e.g., the lithium ion battery) that somebody else then manufactures and profits from. His four-point program for a viable energy policy would be:

  • Support clean tech R&D;
  • Aggressively increase manufacturing capacity of clean energy;
  • Create a more favorable domestic market for clean energy;
  • Increase tax credits to bring the above goals to fruition.

The consensus of many of the experts of the conference seemed to be that our underachieving government was hardly the whole answer to the problem… but it could be doing a whole lot more.

To me, all this suggests two burning questions:

– Will our civic leaders ever emulate the intelligence, much less the creativity, of our clean tech scientists?

– And will today’s songwriters follow the example of the car-loving musicians of yesteryear and create hit songs about the new edible car? (Note: The title “Lola” is already taken.)

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