Belaboring the Obvious

Sunday, April 23, 2006

Anything Wrong With This Picture?

Quite apart from his expending about 20,000 gallons of jet fuel to celebrate Earth Day by biking in the Napa Valley of California (well, let's give him credit for combining trips--he also spent a little time with the Iran war hawks of the Hoover Institution and raised $2 million for the RNC at Indian Falls), Bush is touting his latest energy plan as the means to energy independence.

Elisabeth Bumiller writes in this Sunday morning's New York Times:

Mr. Bush's energy proposals for the fiscal year that begins in October call for $289 million for hydrogen fuel technology, up from $53 million this year; $54 million for coal plants that would capture the carbon dioxide they produce; $148 million for solar power, up from $65 million this year; $44 million for wind power, up $5 million from this year; and $150 million for ethanol from cellulose, up $59 million from this year.

A little math shows this "renewables" spending package for fiscal year 2007 totals $685 million.

But, is it all for "renewable" energy? Hydrogen is being touted as "the fuel of the future" by Bush, while most people with NGO experience in the field acknowledge its current limitations, namely that of suitable range. Its fuel value is quite low, and the storage requirements of hydrogen are formidable. Compressed hydrogen is explosively flammable, and while this rate of burning can be controlled quite well by tanks filled with lithium hydride (hydrogen is adsorbed in the crystal lattice of that material), this strategy reduces the gas volume stored, making range an even greater problem. The remaining present alternative is to use liquid hydrogen, which would require cryogenic equipment at every stage of the fuel cycle, from production to storage to transport to end user vehicle, and considerable additional energy--and cost--to bring the gas to a liquid state and to keep the gas a liquid.

Most would say that all these things represent technical challenges which can be overcome with sufficient time and research, but, being a believer in Murphy's Law--and O'Toole's Commentary on Murphy--I often wonder about the combination of the average citizen and self-serve cryogenic hydrogen fuel.

But, the Bush administration push for hydrogen fuel has an often unacknowledged component--nuclear energy. The DOE's Nuclear Hydrogen Initiative proposes to use a new generation of high-temperature gas-cooled reactors to supply the high temperatures necessary for thermochemical production of hydrogen. The plan is to build roughly fifty new reactors for this purpose by 2020.

The administration continues to try to include subsidies to the nuclear industry for such a plan, and the Cheney task force proposed that taypayers pick up as much as 50% of the construction costs--a direct subsidy to the large multinationals in that business, such as Bechtel, Babcock & Wilcox, Westinghouse, General Electric and others. These businesses would also likely benefit from ancillary subsidies for increasing the capacity of the nuclear fuel cycle to accommodate an almost fifty percent increase in the number of reactors in the country (which would likely not be able to supply fuel for more than about 15-20% of transportation needs). Eventually, the taxpayer would also be subsidizing the disposal of spent nuclear fuel and the oversight of disposal facilities. There's also some question about what happens to the uranium market when such a sudden increase in demand occurs, and how that will affect overall costs.

Another consequence of such a plan, due to the huge initial costs, is that control of the fuel cycle would likely remain in the hands of just a few large energy companies.

So, is the Bush administration plan for hydrogen genuinely a renewables investment or another boondoggle for big business? Maybe both, but with the expenditures weighted toward the latter through heavy unnecessary costs to the taxpayer as a favor to companies unwilling to invest in new technology. While less efficient, there are much simpler--and safer--ways to make hydrogen (such as through simple electrolysis powered by photovoltaics or other clean energy sources), although those technologies are not yet likely to meet the total demand, either.

How about CO2 capture and sequestration? Probably valuable, but does not address other problems with burning coal (such as mercury contamination of waterways and acid rain). While CO2 capture is now being done in a variety of industries on a small scale, it may turn out that the cost of doing so at large coal-burning power plants may make burning coal an unattractive prospect, as compared with simply buying credits (say, from the nuclear power plants above) when such a plan is implemented. Moreover, all such research would be directed toward the continued use of non-renewable fossil fuels. So, it's not really renewables research.

If one subtracts some of the money for hydrogen fuel research which is likely related to processes tied to the nuclear energy industry, and the money for CO2 sequestration, then the actual amount proposed for renewables is more like $475 million.

If that still sounds like a lot of money, here are some ways to think about that $475 million:

  • Jimmy Carter's last budget for solar energy research alone (FY 1981) was $130 million. That's about $340 million in 2006 dollars.
  • $475 million would pay for roughly 1-1/2 days of the costs of the war in Iraq (based on the anticipated costs of $10.2 billion/month predicted for the next war supplemental request).
  • $475 million is about 0.1 percent of the proposed 2007 Department of Defense budget. (Odd, isn't it, how much we spend to defend the right of our multinationals to oil at the cheapest cost, and how little we spend to avoid oil use.)
  • Interest on the current national debt is approaching $350 billion per year. $475 million would pay that interest for about twelve hours.

It's not hard to see, from this, what the priorities of the Bushies actually are. Real energy independence isn't one of them.


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