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

02 April 2012

Not a “Moon Shot”—Not Even Close

Introduction: the “Moon Shot” Propaganda Ploy
The Chevy Volt
Germany’s Leap in Renewable Power

Introduction: the “Moon Shot” Propaganda Ploy

One of the ways (1 and 2) in which the sworn enemies of renewable power dupe the public is making it all seem so exotic and hard. The preferred metaphor is the “Moon shot”: the remarkable forced march in engineering that put men on the Moon within a mere decade after JFK’s bold announcement of that aim.

From the standpoint of politics and PR, the “Moon shot” meme seems brilliant. It gives gullible journalists a little sensationalism to titillate their readers. And it feeds right into engineers’ and managers’ egos, making them seem like supermen. (Germany also may have an interest in forestalling competition in a field in which it seeks global leadership.)

But, at the same time, the “Moon shot” meme makes the public think that wind and solar power are all so risky and iffy. People become like sheep trotting meekly to slaughter. Maybe, they think, we’d all be better off just playing it safe, burning yet more coal, and not minding our labored breathing, increasingly nasty weather, or disappearing coasts.

The meme appeared at two critical junctures in our species’ slow and erratic march to a more rational energy policy. In the first, Bob Lutz, GM’s “father” of the Chevy Volt, described the development of this first serial hybrid as a “Moon shot.” In the second, a German power manager recently called what Germany is now committed to doing in renewable power “as challenging as the first moon landing.”

But in fact is there is no comparison between either project—the Volt or Germany’s coming renewable power grid—and the first Moon shot. Coal’s brilliant PR hacks are just making pedestrian engineering seem risky and hard.

This is not to say that the Volt and Germany’s power projects don’t require competent engineers. They do. But the necessary skills are just basic competence, nothing more. Neither project required (or requires) any extraordinary new concepts in engineering, let alone any fundamental advances in physics, chemistry, materials science or mathematics.

Most of the pieces of the puzzle are available now, for commercial sale, off the shelf. All the engineers need to do is put them together competently.

The Chevy Volt

The Volt was probably the easiest of the two projects. Except for the high-power lithium battery packs, which GM farmed out to others, every piece of the puzzle had been developed previously and was already in successful, everyday use.

Toyota had been the pioneer. Every Prius running down the road already had demonstrated (and still demonstrates) the practical feasibility of electric drive, regenerative braking, and the high-power solid-state switching devices (with no moving parts) that balance power among generator, motor and battery. If worse came to worst, GM’s engineers could have bought a Prius and disassembled it to see how it was done.

GM’s Volt design, the serial hybrid, is even easier in concept than the Prius’ parallel hybrid design. In a serial hybrid, the internal combustion engine just runs an electric generator to charge the battery; it never powers the wheels directly. In a parallel hybrid like the Prius, the internal combustion engine and the electric drive motor both have to power the wheels at once.

The hard part of designing the Prius was developing a continuously variable mechanical (not electric!) transmission—without jerky gear shifting—to do that job smoothly, efficiently and with acceptably low maintenance. But even that required no great breakthroughs in engineering, let alone science. It just required the good, competent, persevering trial and error for which Japanese engineers have become justly admired.

That’s why my initial reaction to the Volt’s design, back in 2007, was so enthusiastic. A serial hybrid eliminates the need for any transmission at all. Electric motors don’t require transmissions; they deliver nearly constant torque throughout their RPM range. (Have you ever heard a subway shift gears?) And running a generator also needs no transmission; the combination of generator and internal combustion engine work most efficiently at a single, optimum RPM.

So, as I’ve pointed out, the design concepts of the Volt’s electric drive were marvels of simplicity, far more elegant than the average gasoline-driven car. The difficulties of bringing it to market arose mostly from marketing, management inertia and politics, not engineering.

Germany’s Leap in Renewable Power

Germany’s task of converting its power infrastructure from fission and coal to the wind, the sun and natural gas is much the same: pedestrian engineering and a little scaling up. No fundamental breakthroughs required.

Wind and solar power plants don’t need any development at all. They work right now, all over the world. They have for years. Travel almost anywhere in our country, and you can see wind farms everywhere. Solar farms exist, but they are harder to see as they are rarer, shorter in stature, and mostly remote from highways.

Both types of plants can always use improvements in efficiency and power. And steady improvement in maintenance costs and longevity are important. Because these power plants use no fuel at all, their maintenance costs and longevity determine the cost of wind and solar power.

But windmills and solar cells are standard industrial products. You don’t need radical engineering for them; you just need a purchasing manager.

If there is anything out of the ordinary that German engineers must do, it involves building a smart grid to switch heavy power loads as wind and solar power fluctuate and “baseload” plants using natural gas or coal must take up the slack.

But that, too, is just putting existing pieces together and scaling up. Remember the regional brownouts and blackouts of the 1970s and 1980s, including the great New York City blackout of 1977? Although smaller-scale failures do occur, the big regional blackouts are mostly a thing of the past. In retrospect, they appear to have been growing pains of a national electricity grid that now sends power wherever it’s needed.

The technology to do this exists today, off the shelf. We have the power lines; we have the switches; we have the sensors; and we have computers to make instantaneous adjustments. We also have satellite, wire, and even fiber-optic communication from every major power node to regional control centers.

Most of the switching to date accommodates variable power loads. But converting to variable power generation is pedestrian. The basic task is precisely the same: getting power from places where it’s in temporary surplus to places where there’s a deficit. Electrons don’t care which way they go.

To accommodate wind and solar power—including their natural fluctuations—all we need to do is use more of the same. And as for variation of wind and sun with weather, we can now predict them, at every town, hamlet and weather station, tens days out. (If you don’t believe that, you’ve never visited weather.com) The predictions can prove wrong at a single point, but when averaged over wide areas with the aid of computers, they are reliable enough for power switching.


So what Bob Lutz managed and championed and Germany is doing is bold, yes. But “Moon shots,” no. Not even close.

It’s true that our manned trips to the Moon got a boost from technology developed for intercontinental ballistic missiles. But the Moon trips required so much more: missiles don’t carry people and don’t have pilots, and the Moon is about thirty times as far away as ballistic missiles must fly. Our engineers had to invent from scratch all the space suits, life-support systems, navigation equipment (including fine motor jets) and re-entry heat shields to keep the Astronauts alive and on trajectory. (The Russians, then Soviets, weren’t telling us their secrets.) And our engineers had to totally redesign missile thrusters and guidance systems for a much longer trip, the hazards of space, and the influence of the Moon’s gravity.

That was truly a remarkable engineering project, of which we Yanks can be justifiably proud. Comparing the Volt or Germany’s power-switching improvements to it only belittles what we accomplished in the sixties.

The comparison also unjustifiably aggrandizes engineers in what, until recently, were two of the sleepiest, least innovative fields of engineering: cars and electric power. Now that those engineers are beginning to do what engineers in biotechnology, medical equipment and Silicon Valley (to name just a few) do every day—innovate!—they deserve support and encouragement. But they certainly don’t deserve encomiums, far less gross exaggerations.

When I was a kid, a writer named George Gamow popularized science and mathematics in books for non-specialists. He wrote a “Dr. Tomkins” series explaining the “miracles” of nuclear physics that had helped us end history’s most awful war and then promised infinite power. His book entitled “One, Two, Three . . . Infinity” explained the mathematics of the infinite and its influence on physics and cosmology.

When I was a kid, these books were best sellers. Can you imagine anything similar today?

In those heady years of public respect for science and engineering, the average Joe and Mary wanted to know more about them, not just use their “miraculous” results. No one alive then could have imagined the assaults on science and reason that exist today—with millions of people utterly disbelieving the results of tens of thousands of climate scientists, working worldwide over decades, and the “theory” of evolution, which is the foundation of all modern biology and microbial medicine.

Today large portions of the public are utterly ignorant of basic science and engineering. What’s worse, Fox goads them to remain so.

Thus it’s perhaps not surprising that the general public could compare the Chevy Volt and Germany’s beefed-up power grid today to the Moon shot in 1968. (Engineers, in both GM and Germany, ought to know better.) And it’s certainly not surprising that the coal barons would try to make them believe that, in a desperate attempt to revive their justifiably dying industry when engineering and economics fail.

But the “Moon shot” meme is just one more data point on a downward trajectory of American science and technology. When you add it to our loss of the Large Hadron Collider to Europe, and the fact that the first real push for large-scale solar and wind power is happening in Germany, not here, it’s hard to be optimistic about our future.

If we now think the pedestrian hard, could we ever again attempt the “impossible”? We developed nuclear weapons from an untested, mostly “foreign” theory in the midst of history’s greatest war. We sent men to the Moon in less than a decade, from a standing start and in spite of a “missile gap.” We turned a bunch of isolated computers into a global communication system called the Internet.

Those were truly remarkable scientific and engineering feats. If we confuse them with pedestrian engineering to improve our lives, new feats of that magnitude will become the province of Germany and China.

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