Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Do we need a new Manhattan Project

to develop alternative sources of energy?

Over at Done with Mirrors, in the comments on the post The Tables Are Turning, two very experienced and canny bloggers – Callimachus and Reader_Iam - debate, among other things, the question raised above. Here’s my answer.

What kind of wimps are you? Robert Heinlein must be turning in his grave!

So first Callimachus says

Manhattan Project came along when the new energy source had been discovered and described and defined, and all that left was a massive motivation of money and manpower to bring it to fruition. That's the point at which a government push can be helpful. That's not where we stand with alternative energies.

I agree-we’re much further along than that. Look at fuel cells and photovoltaic cells.

In particular: " Declining manufacturing costs (dropping at 3 to 5% a year in recent years) are expanding the range of cost-effective uses. The average lowest retail cost of a large photovoltaic array declined from $7.50 to $4 per watt between 1990 and 2005. With many jurisdictions now giving tax and rebate incentives, solar electric power can now pay for itself in five to ten years in many places. "Grid-connected" systems - that is, systems with no battery that connect to the utility grid through a special inverter - now make up the largest part of the market. In 2004 the worldwide production of solar cells increased by 60%. 2005 is expected to see large growth again, but shortages of refined silicon have been hampering production worldwide since late 2004."

And before you ask, yes, silicon can be derived from sand and yes, sand is found in deserts just like the oil but let's not be childish about this.

Now photovoltaic electricity generation is not that efficient but the fuel source (the Sun) is free. Power output is approximately 100 W/sq.m. So power station levels of output would be big (100MW acres=Gigantic [to use a technical term]). However, what about house roofs? Average size= say 70 sq. m (c2000 sq.ft.) so this would produce circa 5kW. It all sounds a bit pessimistic but let me just quote Wikipedia:

Solar Power

Solar cells can presently convert around 15% of the energy of incident sunlight to electrical energy. If built out as solar collectors, 1% of the land today used for crops and pasture could supply the world's total energy consumption. A similar area is used today for hydropower, as the electricity yield per unit area of a solar collector is 50-100 times that of an average hydro scheme. Solar cells can also be placed on top of existing urban infrastructure and does then not require re-purposing of cropland or parkland. The German government currently has a huge photovoltaic energy initiative, which is being watched with interest by other countries."

Doing the costing (amortization) at 5% per annum and allowing for 12 hours per day sunlight gives, say, 5 cents per kWh.

I don’t know electricity prices in the US but I bet they’re worse than that (CanadaOntario August wholesale figure : 5.83¢/kWh).

Even in the (cloudy, wet, dull, overcast, grey, rainy) UK we get something surprisingly close to break-even.

Now, actually, as we all knew, electricity in the US is 50% coal-generated, 20% nuclear … and only 12% oil! So, you guessed it: the problem is cars!

To return to the prophets of gloom (incidentally, if the wages of sin is death, what are the profits of doom?):

Callimachus says

If the next energy breakthrough happens in our lifetimes, don't look for it from a New Manhattan Project. Such an effort would be useful for turning a breakthrough discovery to practical use. But getting there will require a first step of imaginative genius, probably from a mind you wouldn't suspect. For the U.S. to support that, it would have to be willing to pitch money into open-ended research by intellectually curious Poindexters who can offer no practical justification for their staring at the stars.

Reader_Iam says

Brilliance--I mean, TRUE brilliance--is the least democratic of (rare) human qualities. In fact, it is at essence and by definition, anti-democratic (forget about progressive, although, of course, its results--as measured by the Great Breakthroughs throughout history, is Progress personified, however much people, no matter where they are on the ox-gored spectrum, might not like that. It's also not conservative, of course.)

My shallow, dashed off reflection of something I've thought about for a long ... long ... long time.

So long that I'm not sure how long

Fine, I say. We don’t need it. We don’t need genius and we don’t need brilliance. We need technological refinement and cost-cutting. We need development and mass production - what the British have always failed at and what the Americans have always excelled at. Look at

1) the ballpoint pen/biro

2) the car

3) the TV

4) the PC

These are mass-produced and cheap to the point of insanity compared to anything in the Manhattan Project-which was the world’s biggest breadboarding exercise. All we need is development and the willingness to pay.

This where the problems start. Dare I say that the left-wing loony conspiracy theorists have one point [no matter how stupid and deranged you are there’s always the chance that once in a while you might be right]?

That point is the US oil industry. It’s a drag. A dead weight. It doesn’t like this alternative stuff. More to the point, it can produce lots of negative publicity if this stuff gets subsidised by government.

Whoa, you say. Who said anything about subsidy? Well I did. Why? Well the reason is simple. All the examples above were new products. Energy ain’t like that. When companies need to buy computers you can make them expensive, pay off development and tooling-up costs and then bring the unit price down, right down, down through the floor ( a chip [silicon] plant costs c $6bn to build. A chip (silicon, one , PC for the use of) costs c $1 to make [marginal cost].) This is not how it’s going to start with an alternative energy source.

So how do we get over the enormous development and startup costs in the face of strong opposition from the likes of ESSO et al?

Now, of course is a very good time to declare a national emergency. 20% of US refinery capacity is out of action thanks to Katriona, there’s a war on and oil supplies come from various nasty places (isn’t this where we started?) which are susceptible to interruption. And that, imho, is the only way it’s going to happen. Not with some dinky new energy source thought up by some brilliant maverick wearing Clark Kent glasses and a white coat, but with effective subsidised development and roll-out by the country most capable of doing it.

In case people think I’m a crazy Brit, let me point out that Sen. Richard Lugar (R, Indiana) also thinks you can do it.

Ethanol? Now there’s an idea! And you can drink it! Drink (and drive) for victory!

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