Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Wasted Energy

Liberals often argue that sustainable energy technologies have been insufficiently supported by government-supported research, and that the bureaucracy and the private sector have mismanaged the process, necessitating government intervention. Prior Administrations "have spent more than $100 billion chasing [renewables] with limited success."

But President Obama vows to "end the tyranny of oil in our time." To that end, the recently-passed stimulus package:
contains about $40 billion in funding for [energy] research and capital improvements.

That's a staggering amount. The Energy Department's entire budget is just $25 billion, most of which goes to maintaining the nuclear weapons stockpile and cleaning up former weapons plants.

Its total research budget now is about $3 billion. The stimulus bill provides about $2 billion just for research on advanced vehicle batteries.
And the Department of Energy has promised to expedite "dispersal of direct loans, loan guarantees and funding contained in the new recovery legislation . . . [for] investments that will put Americans back to work, reduce our dangerous dependence on foreign oil, and improve the environment."

One problem--according to the Chicago Tribune's Jim Tankersley, alternative energy won't work without fundamental technological breakthroughs:
[O]ver the last three decades, the U.S. has spent many times that much on energy research and development -- with nothing like a transistor to show for it. . .

A recent Energy Department task force report details the sort of breakthroughs crucial to fulfilling Obama's vision of a "clean energy economy" that could slash dependence on foreign oil, combat climate change and ignite the next great domestic job boom.

The wish list includes cells that convert sunlight to electricity with double or triple the efficiency of today's solar panels; batteries that store 10 times more energy than current models; a process for capturing and storing the carbon dioxide emissions from coal; and advanced materials that allow coal and nuclear power plants to operate at hotter temperatures and higher efficiency.

Researchers are working on all of them. But what's required is more than incremental advances in technology. It is advances in understanding basic physics and chemistry that are "beyond our present reach," the report said.
The Washington Post hailed the stimulus bill as government's "chance to prove it can work." Certainly not in the short term. And who knew big government was hanging on a "rewrite [of] the second law of thermodynamics"?

(via The Corner)

3 comments:

OBloodyHell said...

First off, haven't we been through this before? The Carter Admin spent billions pushing "oil shale tech". It got nowhere until the OIL COMPANIES spent a lot of time and effort to get it to the point where... it's still not worth the expense to pull it out of the ground (but just barely that, so that if and when oil pricees DO head upwards and STAY, it'll be worth it.)

So the government spent billions forcing tech and got nothing in return for it.

And at least oil shales are known to represent a worthwhile product -- oil.

Because, second -- Wind and solar are BOTH lame and worthless techs which are of far too low an energy content to be worthwhile even if the technology was incredibly efficient (it would have to be both *astoundingly* cheap AND amazingly efficient to be worthwhile -- and THEN you'll have to deal with the eternal problem of NIMBY, or, worse, NWIMS -- Nowhere In My Sight).

I've already detailed this in an earlier missive:
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EVEN with a 100% efficient (perefect!) solar cell, you'd STILL neeed to cover a total surface area roughly equal to 3/4ths the land area of the ENTIRE STATE OF DELAWARE.
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And you're NOT going to get 100%!!!!

If you can get it to 60% and "affordable" that'll be a major achievement.

So you're actually going to have to produce, distribute, and clean (yes, CLEAN. Regularly. Like by a cadre of window washers!) a total surface area of GREATER than the state of Delaware if you want to replace the US power generation with solar.

What? You only want to do 50%? Ah, well, why didn't you SAY so???

FIFTY PERCENT of the land area of Delaware, THAT's certainly more practical!!

:-S (OW!! It *hurts* when my eyes roll that far up).

And don't even GET me started on the notion that you're going to make solar cell production, currently an offshoot of a VERY toxic process -- "silicon doping" -- into a "clean" technique for producing solar panels in THAT kind of quantity.

Finally, There is exactly ONE solar power technique which has ANY real hope (wind has NONE. Zero. Zip. Nil. NADA.), and that is because it uses the surface of the ocean, covering over 2/3rds of the surface of the planet, as a collector.

OTEC, or "Ocean Thermal" requires developing efficient low-temperature differential power generation, but there's actually some hope for that -- Lonnie Johnson invented a new technique for generating power without using steam that seems quite potentially applicable. Efficiency levels aren't much better than steam at this point, but they certainly represent a good possibility for pulling the energy out of a low-differential situation.

But you can BET no one is going to make a substantial effort to invest in THAT.

Carl said...

OBH:

I concur with your alternative energy skepticism, but the best part is it doesn't matter whether you're wrong: the market itself will demand alternative energy in the event it becomes as efficient and available as fossil fuels.

For a different view, see Larry Lindsey's "pump-priming" suggestion in the March 2nd Weekly Standard.

OBloodyHell said...

Of course, Carl, but my point is, if you're going to spend money (and let's face it, this administration doesn't grasp, and also wasn't elected on, a policy of "Don't just do something, Stand There!!") -- at least direct it into channels that show some HOPE of actually working somehow. And there's no real reason why OTEEC can't work... most of the limitations on it are incremental engineering improvements, unlike the massive breakthroughs to get ANYTHING more than a niche market from wind and solar panels.

OTEC has two central problems -- effective low-differential power generation (which, as mentioned, the JTEC seems very promising and, is in fact, almost perfect for -- PLUS it's minority investment, which is itself a big plus politically), and... barnacles.

You need some way to deal with the tendency of barnacles to attach to anything fixed, which includes the piping needed to transmit the temperature gradient of the ocean surface with the water 60-90 feet below the surface. And barnacles screw up the thermal exchange, which is why you don't want them there.

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If we're determined to spend money, we should work it toward potentially useful solutions, not digging holes and filling them back in.

I don't see throwing money down blatant rat-holes to ever be worth doing in any way, shape, or form, much less at a time when capital investment funds are short.