ObamaÕs Energy Policy

An op-ed piece published
in the San Francisco Chronicle
on Inaguration Day, 2009


By Richard Muller



 Cleaner than thou squabbling hurts good energy policy



President Obama's energy policy needs to address two tricky and often conflicting challenges: energy independence and greenhouse warming.


If energy independence were our sole goal, we could try to wean the US from oil and convert to coal.  We have enough to last for several hundred years, and by then weÕll have fusion. What about gasoline for cars?  No problem. The Fisher-Tropsch process turns coal into liquid fuel for about $60 per barrel -- and oil prices will probably go back up to that level.  We need to begin to prepare for that day.


But alas, coal is dirty; it makes twice as much carbon dioxide as does natural gas. That notorious greenhouse gas is already up 30% world-wide, and the scientific consensus of the Nobel Prize winning IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) is that its continued rise will very likely raise temperatures 5 to 7 degrees F in the coming decades.


Why not just replace fossil fuels with alternative energy, such as solar and wind and biofuels?  True, these alternatives are expensive, but isnÕt stopping global warming worth the cost?


Unfortunately, itÕs not that simple. 


The stumbling block is the developing world.  China and India also have enormous coal resources, and they too want energy independence and to prevent warming.  But they are poor, and coal is dirt cheap, so they are going with it in a big way.  China is installing one new gigawatt coal burning plant every week, and in 2007 it surpassed the US in greenhouse emissions.  According to the IPCC, future global warming will come primarily from the developing world, not the US. 


But shouldnÕt we set an example?  Sure, but it will do little good if following our example is beyond their budget. To be a workable solution, alternative energy must not only be clean but also cheap.  An effective policy must develops diverse approaches while recognizing that expensive solutions arenÕt solutions at all. 


The most  straightforward real solution is energy efficiency.  It doesnÕt cost money: invest in insulation, and your profit from lower fuel costs gives a 15% yearly return.  (That even beats MadoffÕs rates!) Demand better auto fuel economy; modern technology can make efficient autos both peppy and safe. Cool roofs (they reflect heat radiation) are often more cost effective than roof-top solar cells.  They donÕt have to be white; brown works fine. Switch to compact fluorescent lamps (CFLs); recent ones produce such warm light that theyÕve replaced candles in the chandeliers of Notre Dame de Paris! 


Electric cars?  Fine for a wealthy country such as ours.  But batteries are expensive, and China and India canÕt afford the expected $40,000 price tag of the upcoming Chevy Volt. Good for energy independence, but net impact on global warming: nil.


Conservation is needed too: if increased efficiency results in greater energy consumption, then neither energy independence nor warming reduction is addressed.  But higher efficiency offers the possibility to reconcile conservation with  economic stimulus.


During the campaign, Obama referred to clean coal, and opponents called it an oxymoron.  Not so!  The proposed technology not only suppress soot and sulfur, but also grabs carbon dioxide and sequesters it underground. Developing nations dependent on coal can be encouraged to follow this approach through carbon credits.


Opponents say clean coal isnÕt proven. True, but neither is cheap solar.  I believe that the remaining issues are largely engineering -- just as were the remaining issues when President John F. Kennedy proposed putting a man on the moon.


Nukes? We halted the growth of nuclear power in the 1970s in favor of an alternative that seemed clean and cheap and safe: fossil fuel.  Now we know that fossil fuel threatens us with both global warming and war in the Middle East. ItÕs time to reevaluate the relative dangers.  When nuclear power passes the test (as I expect it will; plutonium is actually much less toxic than botox), nukes too should earn carbon credits.


Solar power is not yet as cheap as coal, but it could be; encourage its development with tax incentives.  We also need improved methods for energy storage: compressed gas, batteries, flywheels, and just plain heat.  We need a better power grid to transport solar and wind energy over large distance.  Biofuels have to be approached rationally rather than politically: letÕs cancel corn ethanol subsidies and develop instead technologies for more efficient crops such as switch grass and miscanthus.


Part of President ObamaÕs challenge will come from green bickering.  Solar supporters hate nukes, nuclear experts make fun of solar; CFL advocates argue that LEDs are too expensive, LED ads exaggerate the dangers of the miniscule amounts of mercury in CFLs. 


Such cleaner than thou squabbling interferes with good energy policy. The energy problem requires not one but many solutions: efficiency, conservation, solar, wind, biofuels, clean coal, nukes, LEDs, CFLs, the whole spectrum. The only reasonable energy policy is this: we need it all.