A More Practical Path to Clean Energy?

While President Obama was in Washington speaking to the the joint session of Congress on Wednesday night, I had a chance to hear former Secretary of Labor Robert Reich speak before a similar sized but decidedly less “A list” crowd at St. Mary’s College in California.  

Both expressed concerns over the economy, oil dependence, and carbon, but have very different approaches to the issues.  After pointing out that this is our “Sputnik moment”,  Obama channeled JFK, and suggested funding clean energy as one of the “Apollo projects of our time.”

As he said “We need to get behind this innovation.  And to help pay for it, I’m asking Congress to eliminate the billions in taxpayer dollars we currently give to oil companies…so instead of subsidizing yesterday’s energy, let’s invest in tomorrow’s.” 

Reich’s approach on the other hand is based more on giving clean energy a boost by putting market forces to work – government regulation rather than government spending. He suggested a carbon tax, reflecting the many social costs of fossil fuels (and believe me, there are many.)  The higher priced fossil fuels would create more demand for alternative energy, accellerating both investment and the scale neccessary to achieve the stretch goal the President set of 80% of electricity from clean energy sources by 2035. 

While the Apollo project did get a man on the moon – an unbelievable accomplishment even now – the cost and complexity of the program were enormous. The “brute force”/ big spending approach used by Nasa didn’t lead to a long term practical or commercially viable space program. Ask about the results, and Nasa points to the many ancellary innovations resulting from the $25 Billion program (1970 dollars) , which include everything from programmable pacemakers to dustbusters. I like to think that those innovations would have come along without the Apollo program, and would have been funded by industry rather than tax payers.  The space shuttle is also considered by many to be unsustainably expensive… another technological cul de sac.  

Meanwhile, Elon Musk’s private Space X startup is approaching space flight with a philosophy that “simplicity, low-cost, and reliability can go hand in hand.” Similarly, the goal should not just be to throw money at clean energy, but to create technology paths that are commercially sound and cost effective.  

Funding is also an issue. When JFK proposed to put a man on the moon, the US debt was 40% of annual GDP.  With the figure hovering near 100% now, it’s hard to imagine funding a new ‘space race’ in clean energy. In contrast, Reich’s plan actually generates income. While the cost of the tax would be borne by the public, his idea would be to give back the income to  lower income wage earners in the form of earned income tax credits, increasing income, expanding middlle class spending power, and pulling us out of the recession.  

The President spoke of a future with high speed rail and electric cars criss crossing the country. But it’s an exciting vision only if the public can afford to ride them.

Original photo CC license http://www.flickr.com/photos/bdburton/ modified by ClimatePath. All rights reserved


Rose N.
Past Member 5 years ago

Thank you for posting.

Hartson Doak
Hartson Doak5 years ago

I vaguely remember a 10 billion dollar number being through out by the feds to stimulate rail. Here on Oahu the local government has spent that amount just talking about it for 25 years.

Elizabeth M.
Elizabeth M5 years ago

Thank You for a most interesting article David R. I like President Obama's comment re getting Congress to eliminate the billions of tax payers dollars given to the oil companies. With this money, it would then open a lot of doors. Is it possible????? I don't think he will have a chance unfortunately.

Robert B.
Robert Bernal5 years ago

I needed to add just one more thing...
Nuclear is safe... until there is another accident. That accident, I KNOW could ONLY be caused by DESIGN. Therefore, it might be worth looking into CLOSED cycle fission of already "spent wastes" (and thorium) in a molten salt reactor. The LFTR is inherently safe by design so the only possible accident left is the one that happens when terrorists overtake and use ROBOTICS to steal and make a bomb. A human bomb maker would be fried by the enormous gamma exposure emitted by the U233 separation... (by use of thorium as the closed cycle nuclear fuel). It is much easier to make a bomb with uranium fuel.

So I may be wrong about the Sputnik moment.
It can {also be} because China and India are looking into MSR's

Hear's a link to this most promising of the nuclear technologies...


Robert B.
Robert Bernal5 years ago

The Sputnik moment is China and Germany building the first of the ROBOTIC SOLAR PV FACTORIES... That's it. If we do not build a "better ROBOTIC PV FACTORY" then we lost the race. The object is to have the world compete over who makes solar panel for just $1 {per square foot}...

Referring to other posts, here and elsewhere, religion is only one reason to multiply... Fashion and desire is a "far more" reason! If anything, religion prevented me from (can I cuss here?).
Some actually still think that global warming is false (because they believe it to be part of a conspiracy theory). They need to be taught that even {if} the powers that be do indeed use it (GW) to their advantage, that does not mean it is untrue.
CO2 will always be an infrared absorber, and humanity has increased the count by 40% by converting over 100 CUBIC MILES of FF's into it! No one can dispute that. JUNK science can ONLY say "Don't worry, despite all the facts".

Humanity {needed} oil in order to carry on into the next and larger level - powered by 50,000 sq mi of solar PV and CSP towers (with molten salt energy storage). Cheap utility and mobility scale batteries need also to be mass produced in ROBOTIC factories in America and elsewhere. The LiFePO4 is Goodenough (search that!)

The "population bomb" solution: Multi level 3 dimensional cities and e-car access to ALL LEVELS, even cable car "clips" for e-cars? (Of course they will need "yard space" on every level too).

Scott Vonwolf
Scott haakon5 years ago

The is no shortage of oil but of pipelines and refineries! We cannot wait 20 years for all the new ideas to be proven and come online. Our economy need cheap energy now. In the past we have been lax in the drilling and building and refitting refineries as well as allowing gasses to be burned off rather than used for energy generation. Using state of the art we could have enough energy within two years the get the price drop our economy needs.

Past Member
Dorothy C5 years ago

Thank you Stephen. I did not know any of the improvements you tell us about. What happens with the spent waste from the modern plants?

Stephen Amsel
Past Member 5 years ago

I understand the worry regarding a disaster like Chernobyl. Fortunately, such a disaster is not possible with modern reactor-designs for two reasons.

First, to achieve such a disaster, all safety-systems were turned off and the reactor was set to run above its designed-capability. Frankly, it looks less like an accident and more like sabotage the more I learn about it. It is not possible to turn off all safety-systems in modern reactors. For example, they are usually built with a piece which is required to keep the reaction going. That piece melts before the temperature rises high enough for a reaction to get out of control.

The second reason is that the damage was widespread because radioactive cooling steam leaked. Modern designs use sodium fluoride, not water, as their primary coolant (secondary coolants do not become radioactive). Sodium fluoride does not boil even at nuclear reactor-temperatures. There is no gas-pressure to build up and burst the container, and even if it does crack, it would spill as a liquid, not spread as a gas.

Also, reactors exist which can run on unenriched uranium so nuclear power-proliferation does not translate into nuclear weapons-proliferation. Radiation-shielding is so good now that the radioactivity from a plant is lower than normal background radiation. I am probably exposed to more radiation from the granite in my apartment than I would be if I lived next to a plant. The major problems of nuclear power have been solved.

Past Member
Dorothy C5 years ago

Wendy and Brian and Wendy, I agree that population control, should be on the agenda for any discussion about environmental issues. I recall this discussion way back in the 60's when my and my contemporaries where having children and deciding how many children to have.

Wendy I agree with you about coal. Even gas that has to use defracking (sp) or other extremely destructive methods of extracting gas from the earth, do not meet with my approval. Further these methods are very expensive, A cost/benefit analysis of such methods would contra- indicate their use.

also increasingkly

Past Member
Dorothy C5 years ago

Heidi, I agree with you. Clean energy like every other new invention will eventually be less costly in time as demand increases.