Diatribes of Jay

This is a blog of essays on public policy. It shuns ideology and applies facts, logic and math to economic, social and political problems. It has a subject-matter index, a list of recent posts, and permalinks at the ends of posts. Comments are moderated and may take time to appear. Note: Profile updated 4/7/12

14 January 2009

“When Donkeys Fly”: Steven Chu’s Energy Plans


[For a related post on how easy it will be to market the Chevy Volt, both as an exciting car and as an energy solution, click here.]

Energy policy is a make-or-break issue for our nation and our species. So I found it more troubling than amusing yesterday when our hare-brained media rushed off to cover the Hillary Clinton’ hearing, rather than that of Nobel Laureate Steven Chu as Secretary of Energy.

Sitting right next to Chu at the witness table was Senator Barbara Boxer (D., Ca.). In introducing the distinguished scientist from her own state, Boxer made a fool of herself, kicking off her remarks with an awkward excuse for rushing off to hear Hillary. She might as well have said, “Hillary’s more important. Sorry, Steve.”

Sitting on Chu’s right, Senior Senator Diane Feinstein (D., Ca.) had been more tactful and gracious. She emphasized the importance of energy policy, California’s role as an experimental energy laboratory, and the contributions of Chu and the national laboratory he runs to our nation’s scientific past and future.

The fact is that neither Hillary Clinton nor her new job is more important than Steven Chu’s. In any event, nothing new or remarkable emerged from the Clinton hearing. As usual, Clinton’s articulate but tightly scripted speech foretold nothing and solved nothing. In contrast, the Chu hearing revealed some important new information about the Obama Administration’s energy policy and our energy future.

An unlikely hero emerged from the Chu hearing. Bob Corker, the new Republican Senator from Tennessee, had exploited an ad with racist overtones to beat his Democratic rival, former Congressman Harold E. Ford, Jr. But he proved to be far more than a clever and dirty campaigner. He was easily the most candid and perspicacious speaker at the hearing. His remarks were a breath of fresh air.

Most of the senators used their brief remarks to score points or lay down markers for narrow, parochial interests of their states or local industries. Nearly every one of them had something to sell.

But Corker was different. He appeared to have our nation’s and our species’ interests at heart. He spoke to the gravest issue in all of energy policy: how long we humans will continue to poison our cities and ruin our planet by burning coal.

Responding to others’ insistence that Chu devote substantial attention and resources to the dangerous illusion of “clean coal,” Corker was candid and folksy. Many people believe, he said, that sequestering carbon from burning coal will work “when donkeys fly.” He recognized the continuing mortal threat of coal, all but apologizing for his state’s own reliance on that dirtiest of fuels.

Chu’s response was revealing. Earlier he had danced around the issue. But Corker gave him the opportunity to be more candid. Chu acknowledged that carbon sequestration is only a “possibility” and that making it a reality will be a “real challenge.”

You had to pay careful attention to understand the nuances of Chu’s “diplomatic-speak.” Later in the hearings he called the promise of fourth-generation biofuels (bioengineered plants refined to fuel by bioengineered microbes) a “probability.” The contrast with “possibility” for coal sequestration was telling.

This exchange revealed two things about Chu himself. First, as a brilliant scientist, he knows the score. Second, he won’t stick his neck out politically unless led by others with more political backbone. He’ll let the new president decide how to frame the issues and break the bad news, but he’ll give the president accurate advice on real science behind the scenes.

The second most important point to emerge from Chu’s hearing involved nuclear energy. The Obama Administration’s approach to nuclear power is not nearly as negative as pandering to the NIMBY fringe made it seem during the campaign.

Several senators from Southern states expressed eagerness to build new nuclear power plants. Sen. Blanche Lincoln (D., Ark.) pointed out that our Southeast doesn’t have much wind but also doesn’t want to be left behind in modern energy. In response, Chu enunciated a policy of building new uranium-cycle plants. He also supported quick release of long-sequestered and over-bureaucratized federal loan guarantees for that purpose.

Yet Chu’s remarks on nuclear fuel reprocessing were disappointing. He recognized—as he must—that reprocessing decreases both the radioactivity and radioactive lifetime of nuclear waste, at the same time as it extends nuclear fuel and makes it more economical. He also recognized that France, Japan and Russia reprocess nuclear fuel and that Great Britain is looking into doing so.

Yet Chu pleaded lack of detailed knowledge of reprocessing technology. He appeared to want to put it on the back burner, citing risks of diversion by terrorists. Like Candidate Obama, he also disparaged nuclear waste disposal at Yucca Mountain, making only vague promises of future research toward alternatives.

This response was troubling for several reasons. First, as Chu himself pointed out, nuclear power today accounts for 70% of our carbon-free energy. If we are to reduce our national carbon footprint significantly, we are going to have to rely on nuclear power at least in part and at least in the medium term.

Second, as Chu himself also pointed out, coal and nuclear are our two current “base load” technologies for electric power. Coal today generates more than 50% of our electricity. While efficiency and conservation may keep that number from going up, only substitutes for coal like nuclear, wind and solar can bring it down. If we are going to wean ourselves from the most dangerous and dirty fuel on Earth, we are going to have to resort to nuclear power.

Next to these points, the rest of the hearings paled into insignificance. Only a few additional points are worth making.

Handsome and self-confident, Evan Bayh (D., Ind.) staked out a position as chief energy troglodyte. Noting (with apparent pride) that 98 percent of his state’s electric power comes from coal, he insisted that we force China and India to take the first steps toward reducing coal use.

Bayh and all of Indiana’s political leaders should wear that 98% number in shame, marked in soot on their foreheads. It is appalling. Indiana’s senior senator Dick Lugar (R., Ind.) knows better. But apparently neither he nor any other Hoosier has done anything with that knowledge. That’s not leadership!

One the bright side, Bernie Sanders (I., Vt.) lauded solar power and asked only for a laboratory (or branch thereof) to promote it in his state. That’s the spirit! Another Senator asked about thermal solar power, and Chu responded with appropriate approval and enthusiasm.

As for wind power, the hearings were a bit of a love fest. There was much support and enthusiasm for this hugely promising, nontoxic, carbon-free, nonpolluting technology, which works right now. Chu himself lauded it and explained how expanding and “smartening” our electric grid will promote it.

The only sour note on wind was sung by Senator Bob Menendez (D., N.J.). He made his whole state sound like a NIMBY area for new transmission lines. To be fair, he had a minor point. Apparently the regulators have designated his whole state as a power transmission corridor, while analyzing matters on a line-by-line basis in California and other western areas. But that was a small point for Menendez to make in private, rather than appear a troglodyte like Evan Bayh.

Mary Landrieu (D., La.) made a final practical point. She asked Chu to divert subsidies and attention from corn-derived ethanol to sugar-derived ethanol, which is far more efficient. Chu never responded to her request, but it’s something that the Obama Administration should consider, now that pandering to troglodytes is in abeyance for at least two years.

The Chu hearings thus made three things clear. First, Chu himself is a brilliant scientist with a clear, quantitative grasp of the issues and the real potential of various solutions, including so-called “clean coal.” Second, now that it actually has to solve real problems, the Obama administration (as I predicted) apparently is reconsidering the campaign’s ridiculous overemphasis on “clean coal” and not-so-benign neglect of nuclear energy.

Third—and most important—there are still too many energy troglodytes out there.

Some otherwise smart politicians still don’t get it: energy is not just another issue to be traded off like pieces of pork. It’s a matter of survival for our nation, our species, and our planet. Every state and every locality needs to pull together if we are to get energy right. There is no room for parochial interests or NIMBY resistance.

People like Evan Bayh and Bob Menendez need to get educated, and quickly. After eight years of the most anti-science administration in U.S. history, it’s depressing to hear Democrats talking like them. Maybe Chu, once confirmed, can hold a seminar for backward senators.

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