Could an Energy Taskforce in the West Wing Put America Ahead on Clean Energy?

October 15, 2008 |

By Breakthrough Senior Fellow Marty Hoffert

When it comes to creating a clean energy system in America, Presidential leadership is key, but a re-organization at the White House will also be necessary to move things effectively. America must upgrade the Secretary of Energy position to cabinet level equivalent to Secretary of State and Secretary of Defense, in recognition of the international issues such as the rapid pace of coal plant construction in places like China and the need for a post-Kyoto international treaty and of the national security dimensions of energy such as the concentration of remaining oil deposits in unstable countries in the Middle East and elsewhere, and weapons proliferation among terrorists from nuclear reactors and processing plants.

This person should have the political gravitas and technical smarts to get things done. (I'll say what things in a moment.) Installed in the West Wing of the White House should be a team modeled somewhat on FDR's War Production Board which had broad powers to deploy material and human resources for the war effort. Let's call it the Energy/Climate Task Force, a brain trust composed of academics (mainly engineers and scientists, but clear-thinking economists and accountants with non-ideological track records are allowed) and business leaders -- well-represented by Silicon Valley entrepreneurs if it were my call.

The goal of this team and the Energy Secretary will be to create -- by research, development, demonstration and deployment -- new technologies that will transform the US and world from a fossil fuel based energy system with CO2 freely vented to the atmosphere to a carbon-neutral world energy system by midcentury. We're talking primary power from (1) coal gasification in integrated combined cycle plants electric power and hydrogen with carbon capture and storage (CCS), (2) "green nukes," and (3) renewables, mostly solar, wind and geothermal along with the enabling systems & infrastructure that can make them integral to our lives (green buildings and new community designs, smart grids, massive scale electric power storage systems, high voltage transmission lines, and other innovative systems.) The goal would be to have, by midcentury, worldwide carbon-neutral personal transportation (electric, hydrogen and/or biofueled cars and trucks) as well as carbon neutral aerospace vehicles.

As much as I love Google's goal to make renewables cheaper than dirty coal (RE < C), my proposed Energy Task Force, working with a new US green industry building wind turbines, solar panels, "clean" coal and new nukes at a World War II pace -- we went from 3000 planes/year in 1939 to 100,000 planes/year by 1944 -- might not crack this cost-effectiveness against coal burning barrier. So what? We have to stop those 900 new coal plants that are going to overwhelm Kyoto emission reductions by a factor of five. As for funding this energy revolution, remember that we began World War II in the depths of a depression much worse than our present mortgage meltdown one, and ended WW II the most powerful economy in the world -- moving on to the so-called American Century. If money is the key, how did we do it? The truth is that money is the least important issue we have to face. The US routinely wastes hundreds of billions on useless wars like Vietnam and Iraq when none of our leaders can even articulate what it would mean to "win," or the Strategic Defense Initiative to intercept enemy nuclear missiles -- a receding goal for the past half-century. Please don't say we can't afford to save high tech civilization. I accept that we might be too stupid to save it, but not that we can't afford to.

Let's be optimistic. Too many smart and good humans have given their lives getting us where we are to turn survivalist. Let's at least try. Let's think out of the box on many fronts and try things like joint ventures with China and India -- even building carbon neutral power plants there with US taxpayers money. Hey, what do think "lend lease" to the UK and Russia during World War II was? We are working against a deadline. Reduce CO2 emissions by 80% from today -- that's effectively a phase out -- as world energy demand doubles or triples by midcentury. Despite the daunting nature of this challenge it's doable if we stop kidding ourselves that the technology already exists, or that efficiency improvements alone will get us there, all in a relatively painless way. We have to organize government & industry and deploy our intellectual and physical resources the way FDR did in WW II.