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

09 April 2009

Race for the Future

An idiosyncrasy of the English language gives the word “race” two wildly different meanings. It connotes both an ethnic group with biological or evolutionary roots and a speed contest.

Both meanings are vital to the near future of our human race. As we threaten to outgrow our habitat—the Earth on which we evolved—we must achieve cooperation and mutual respect among our distinct races. Doing so is crucial to our survival as a species.

Yet our various races and nations are also racing to replace self-destructive technologies like nuclear weapons and fossil fuels with less dangerous and more advanced substitutes. The survival of our biosphere in its present form depends how many run that race well.

We Americans are winning the race to marginalize race in human governance. No other people or nation has a leader anything like Barack Obama. It’s not just his race. It’s his competence: a unique blend of diplomacy, intelligence, judgment, vision and character, plus his remarkable freedom from blindsiding ideology. Every other great nation on Earth would have passed him by because he didn’t have the right ancestry or skin color. We didn’t, and we are better for it.

But before we congratulate ourselves on our choice of leader and our social advancement, we should recognize a sad fact. We may be losing another great race.

Our leading futurist Tom Friedman continually beats the drum for a gasoline tax or carbon tax. Economics tells us that a tax is the gentlest and least intrusive way to move free markets away from dangerous and increasingly scarce fossil fuels. But Europe already has a gasoline tax. Europe’s tax on gasoline more than doubles its price at the pump. In response to these taxes, Europeans drive cars that, on the average, get nearly twice the mileage of ours. The result? They pay about the same price per mile of travel, but they amass huge sums in taxes for national health care, generous retirement, and physical and social infrastructure.

The future of individual transportation lies in electric cars. They have enormous social, environmental, engineering and personal advantages that no other transportation technology can match. After a century of advances in chemistry, physics and materials science, from lead-acid batteries to lithium-titanium and lithium-iron-phosphate combinations, the best battery technology is now struggling to be born. The future is almost here, and the race to bring it here is on.

In the short term, we Americans appear to be winning that race. GM’s Chevy Volt—an electric car with an auxiliary internal combustion engine—is closer to showrooms than any direct competition. It’s still on track for a commercial debut in November of next year.

But in the medium and longer term we appear to be behind. Japan first developed hybrid technology, whose solid-state controllers of high-power electricity (which incidentally have no moving parts) are very close to those needed for electric cars. A Korean company, LG Chem Ltd., makes the cells for the batteries that the Volt will use, although its American subsidiary will supply them in Michigan, and GM will assemble them into battery packs there.

In the race to showrooms, the rest of the world is close on our heels. Among the foreign car makers joining the race are Toyota, Daimler-Benz, and BYD, a Chinese company 10% owned by Warren Buffet’s Berkshire Hathaway. American contestants include GM (with its Volt), Ford, and startups Tesla Motors and Fisker Automotive. In the medium to long term, we cannot win this race unless we leapfrog others in the most important technology, batteries. At the moment, we are ahead on the platforms and behind in batteries.

The story is similar in generating the electricity to power these cars. We Americans invented nuclear power. Yet we use it to generate only 19% of our electricity. France’s nuclear share of electric power is 77%. A host of other nations, including several former Soviet satellites, are north of 30%. China appears to have decided to forsake its climate-destroying rush for coal power and push for nuclear power and renewables.

Wind power is a mixed story. Last year we surpassed Germany as the nation that generates the most wind power. (Germany still has the most installed capacity; we just have a much larger country with more wind.) But our only native wind-generator producer, GE, is merely one of the top five companies in this global business. Despite its tragic foray into finance, GE is still an excellent company, and no one should count it out. Yet supremacy in this vital future business is by no means assured.

Solar power tells a similar story. We have lots of great research in universities and industrial companies, but Germany’s more intelligent industrial policy has let it lead the world in using photovoltaic cells. We’ve had viable solar thermal plans on the drawing boards for a decade, and our Southwest has far more reliable sun than any place in China, Europe or Japan. But we have yet to site, build and connect any serious solar thermal plant.

These technologies—nuclear, wind and solar thermal—all work right now. They need no further development, only intelligent siting, construction, connection and use. Photovoltaic solar has a slight cost disadvantage, which researchers are working to overcome. But it, too, works now and is even cost effective for some applications. Unlike so-called “clean coal,” none of these technologies is a mere future possibility or possibly vaporware. All are generating useful electric power, even as you read this. All they require is the vision, investment and foresight to put them in place.

In 1960, Jack Kennedy got himself elected president in part by promising to close the “missile gap” with the Soviet Union—a perceived lag in our fielding intercontinental nuclear weapons. Now we have a real and growing “energy gap”: a lag in our relative ability to field clean and workable but underused technologies to power our transportation and industry.

Kennedy proposed closing our missile gap by putting a man on the Moon within a decade. We met that goal in a mere eight years, and the technological advancement derived from doing so closed the missile gap.

Without setting a deadline, the man who is helping us win the race against race has challenged us to a similarly massive, national effort in energy. Winning that race is going to cost money, a lot of it. But the prize is not just supremacy in a military technology that we hope will never be used. This time, the prize is global leadership that will be used, in industry, commerce—and especially manufacturing—for the foreseeable future.

The nation that first makes attractive electric cars and fully exploits existing nonpolluting energy technologies will own the future and lead us to the stars. Whether we Americans win that race will depend on how enthusiastically we follow the man we wisely chose to lead us at this critical time in our national history.


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