Energy independence will take commitment like space race

September 05 2008 / by futuretalk / In association with Future
Category: Energy   Year: General   Rating: 9 Hot

By Dick Pelletier

Energy is the life-blood of America – it affects our economy, standard of living and national security. And our prime current energy source – oil – is a product we can no longer afford.

High gas prices, air pollution, and global warming are part of the problem, but more important are the tensions brought about with countries that supply this non-renewable energy. For decades, these tensions have directly or indirectly been at the root of most global conflicts.

In a “Wired Magazine” article, Peter Schwartz and Doug Randall say concerns about oil supply are indirectly responsible for our wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and have caused strained relationships with our allies. And clashes with the Muslim world, mired in oil interests, finally brought the unthinkable to our shores – the “9-11” World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks.

Schwartz and Randall believe there’s only one way to insulate the U.S. from oil’s corrosive power. “We must develop an alternative energy,” they say. “Hydrogen stores energy more effectively than batteries, burns twice as efficiently in a fuel cell as gasoline does in an internal combustion engine, and leaves only water. It’s plentiful, clean, and capable of powering cars, homes and factories.”

Today’s energy situation is reminiscent of Soviet cold war times. In 1957, Russia launched the first satellite into space, and in 1961, Yuri Gagarin became the first human in orbit. Afraid Soviet space domination would make our country unable to defend itself, President Kennedy announced Apollo, a 10-year, $100 billion program (in today’s dollars) to land a man on the moon. Eight years later, Neil Armstrong made his “giant step for mankind” and America quickly regained world leadership.

Schwartz and Randall believe we face a similar threat today from foreign oil dependency. “As President Kennedy responded to Soviet space superiority,” they said, “Our next president must respond to foreign oil by making energy independence a national priority to be achieved within 10 years.”

Although starting slowly, hydrogen energy development has already begun. FreedomCAR is a government-industry partnership with the Department of Energy (DoE), Ford, General Motors, and Daimler-Chrysler. Hybrid vehicles are being produced that run on both gas and electricity derived from hydrogen fuel cells.

Hybrid vehicles cost about $4,000 extra, which dampens enthusiasm. Later all-electric models will include a 15-year hydrogen fuel cell; no need for replacement during the car’s lifetime.

Will this hydrogen future happen? “Absolutely,” say DoE officials. “America could become a hydrogen society by 2030.” But critics say this is not fast enough. Bush only requested $1.2 billion for hydrogen development. What’s needed is an Apollo-like effort with a $100 billion budget to make America completely hydrogen-powered in the future. Schwartz and Randall detail this budget in their article.

What’s beyond hydrogen? Experts believe by 2050, satellites could send solar rays to Earth providing free energy; and by 2100, exotic antimatter energy could power huge spaceships to distant worlds at faster-than-light speeds.

Comments welcome.

When do you think America will become energy-independent?

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Comment Thread (1 Response)

  1. Dick—Nice piece and lots to talk about.

    In general I think it’s important to expand our diversity of inputs, use power of hydrogen as storage device, and focus on positive global interdependence.

    We might lessen the role of oil, and try to improve political/cultural conditions that underlay our conflict with resource rich, non-democratic countries.

    If I could throw out a book recommendation: Gusher of Lies by Robert Bryce.

    Bryce looks at the rhetoric vs reality of energy independence. It’s a sharp attack on the basic premise independence, in favor of embracing good of economic interdependence.

    While I can’t agree with everything Bryce says—he’s sobering when it comes to breaking down what is possible given our dependency on burning hydrocarbons, and the massive trend towards global economic and cultural interdependence. (And we haven’t even started seeing global natural gas industry growth)

    For me the ‘Apollo’ program analogy is inviting, but only for funding and focus on basic science. I think a national program for energy independence is nationalistic and short-sighted. It doesn’t represent forward-thinking based on positive global interdependence.

    If we are looking to balance the dollars exchanged in buying resources, then we should aim to expand ‘exports’! Where we might be short on raw resources, the US could become leaders in other aspects of the energy industry.

    Instead of building walls and closing our borders, we could ‘export’ our engineering might and financial resources to the world and develop abundant, cheap clean energy. We have lots to offer beyond raw inputs. Human talent, for one. Advanced materials science (e.g. catalysts). The list goes on and on.

    Any type of ‘independence’ in this age of global economy seems a step back to the 19th century. And I’m not sure of any benefits in isolating countries b/c of natural resources.

    If I can offer a different way of looking at the issue.

    Oil might not the problem. It’s the lack of substitutability with the combustion engine. Hydrogen is important b/c it gives us a chance to lessen the role of oil. Other resources (wind, solar, gas) can compete with transportation fuel markets. And we can store hydrogen as a solid - opening new business models. But all this requires abandoning the combustion engine, not oil itself.

    Even if we took a step towards independence, adjusting the market share of energy resources towards locally developed systems (both inputs; and storage via hydrogen) will just take decades.

    By then- today’s Petro-dictatorships might be our friends.

    Imagine calling for electronic appliance independence from Japan post WWII vs seeing Japan is our friend today. Young people today might look at Iran and Venezuela as political allies circa 2025. I’d rather work towards that future- than isolate countries or regions b/c of our own failure in planning.

    I think America has a real opportunity with energy—but it isn’t about independence. It’s about diversifying our feedstocks and making oil less of a big deal.

    Again—great post! No flame intend—all IMHO!!!

    I obviously love the topic! And notion of a massive investment in energy!! Garry

    Posted by: Garry Golden   September 05, 2008
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