President Obama’s administration certainly sees the energy future of the US different than the last administration. Overall, this is very good news. A few years ago, when I first starting looking seriously at the US energy policies and proposals, I was not very confident about our chances to create a sustainable energy future. I’m much more optimistic now. Of course, this is a day to be optimistic and a day to believe in what we can accomplish if we just put our talents to it. At the same time, it’s also the day to start looking more carefully at the proposals. There’s much work to be done and the devil is, as always, in the details.
The proposals for tackling our energy and environmental challenges are ambitious and still rather vague at this time, naturally. Probably the best indication of what we will see was given in the senate confirmation hearing of the new Secretary of Energy, Steven Chu. Steven Chu is the former director of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, a position which he held for four years, and a professor of physics and molecular and cell biology at Berkeley. I will not hold that institution across the Bay against him, but let me just mention that until 2004 he was a Professor in Physics and Applied Physics at Stanford…. The old rivalry between Stanford and Berkeley aside, Steven is a very clever and astute scientist as well as politician and I am thrilled he has been selected.
So, what did he say in the hearings? First of all let’s look at the critical areas to focus on as identified by the Obama team. They are demand reduction through efficiency in both transport and buildings, a move to electrical transport, a strong push for renewable energy, with particular emphasis on solar, wind and geothermal, clean coal and nuclear energy to supply electricity in the interim period, and responsible exploration and production of fossil fuels. Personally I’m very happy with this set of priorities. Demand reduction is the low hanging fruit. Improved building codes, weatherization of existing building, higher MPG requirements for new cars and programs that motivate people to lower the current passenger miles/year are all excellent ways to quickly reduce our fossil fuel consumption and therefore our oil and gas imports, and reduce green house gas emissions as well as the financial burden of individuals. I see that in the first draft of the stimulus plan put together in the House, a reasonable amount of money is set aside for weatherization, insulation, appliance rebates and other industrial and domestic buildings. More important, of course, are new building code regulations that will enforce efficiency measures for new homes: the building turnover in the US (approximately a third of all buildings is rebuilt every ten years) is fast enough that such measures will quickly lead to energy savings. Money is also set aside for battery development and I sure hope that the bailout plan for the car industry has big strings attached to it that forces Detroit to move in the direction of producing smaller and more fuel efficient cars.
Considering Steven Chu’s enthusiasm for biofuels, evident from the strong research focus on biofuels at the laboratory during his tenure as well as his own contributions to such reports as “Lighting the Path” produced by the Interacademy Council, and my own belief that this is the wrong fuel resource to pursue I am relieved that biofuels have remained mostly in the background. There has been no mention of moving to flexfuel vehicles, for example. Plugin hybrids is the chorus heard all around. However, in the hearings Steven Chu did mention biofuels after questions from rural states, in particular Arkansas. His answers were diplomatic and careful, but these questions more than any other seem to extract from him true sparkles in the eyes. Steven believes that fourth generation biofuels, which include non-ethanol fuel products, such as biodiesel formed by enzymes and yeasts from agricultural and municipal waste as well purposely grown biomass crops, could play an important role in alleviating our current thirst for foreign oil. As he strongly promoted electric transport in the same hearing, I assume that he sees this as an interim solution. Of course, any reference to biofuels is music to the ears of the agricultural states who fear that the large biomass programs initiated in the previous administration may go down the drain. I personally hope that we will hear little of these developments: the more money we divert from these efforts and put into solar energy, the better.
What was surprising in the hearing? I would say three things. First, Steven Chu’s (and Obama’s) outright support of nuclear energy. New plants will be build and the loan guarantee provisions, which so far has been a great bottleneck, will be pushed forward fast. Moreover, this will be done before final decisions are made on long term waste storage. This put a smile on my face, not because I feel that we should disregard the waste issue, it is vital that we address it and we have a moral as well as legal obligation to do so, but because this decision is made out of sheer confidence in our scientific and technical abilities to deal with this issue. As a scientist I’m more than delighted to notice this in a confirmation hearing. It’s been a while since such trust in science was heard anywhere on Capitol Hill. A real perk of having a renowned scientist in the cabinet. I am not against nuclear energy and do think it can play an important role in the interim period in which we move away from fossil-fueled power plants to renewable electricity production. The second surprise was to me the strong support of coal. The story is very similar to that of nuclear. We will build a few plants now, even when they do not adhere to stricter enviromental standards, and will not halt construction until we have found realistic and proven solutions to carbon capture and storage. In the meantime, however, we will push very strongly for such solutions, again trusting research to find answers. I’m not as positive about this delay as I am about the delay in the nuclear case. The simple reason being that nuclear waste at this time is safely stored away (with a few exceptions, see below): lethal, but contained for the time being. Waste from coal fired power plants however, once released, can not be captured. Noxes, soxes, mercury, particulate matter and, of course, carbon dioxide. At the same time, I realize that we are strongly dependent on coal for electricity generation at the moment (more than half of our electricity is generated from coal), so realism has to set in. The third surprise to me was the lack of a very strong push for solar. It was mentioned, but no solar Marshall plans in sight. Aye, this pains me. We will invest in solar energy, yes, and at a much higher level than the previous administration, but where are the grand solar plans that we really must be making? Solar energy is our greatest resource and once we can capture this efficiently and at reasonable cost we’ll be rocking and rolling.
The hearings were not just about energy supply and demand. They also covered, thanks to the insistence of Senators Cantwell of the state of Washington and Graham of South Carolina, current nuclear waste disposal sites. Of great concern, and receiving too little press, is the nuclear waste disaster in Hanford, Washington State, where a plume of radioactive waste is making its way to the Columbia river. A very serious Steven Chu vowed to take the necessary clean-up very seriously indeed.
A very interesting discussion ensued when Steven Chu as asked about the international role the United States can play in global climate and energy. The US is currently in stalemate with China and India. Neither country wants to take the first step without firm buy-in from the other partners in pollution. Steven Chu made a bold statement that he wants the US to take the first step in confidence that China and India will then follow suit, and without, necessarily, firm commitment. Some senators expressed that such a step would never pass congress, and that they are very sceptical that an agreement with China and India can be made. I loved Chu’s statement though. May it indeed be possible that we will get out of this terrible chicken and egg problem? That the US will in fact start to lead, rather than hamper? I am optimistic, very optimistic.
Link related to this topic: Steven Chu’s senate hearing can be found at US Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources – hearings. Go to the hearing of January 13 and click on the “View archived webcast” link.