Comments on this blog and in the media have pointed out that energy technology investments proposed by the President will not bear fruit for years, and will have little impact on reducing oil consumption this decade. This theme was anticipated in an article in MIT's Technology Review, contrasting the substantial funding for hydrogen-related energy research with the paucity of money for improvements to the internal combustion engine. It's worth considering whether the implied priorities are really appropriate.
Take one specific technology that the President mentioned Tuesday evening, better batteries for hybrid cars and electric vehicles--presumably including the promising plug-in hybrids. While probably nearer-term in its impact than hydrogen fuel cell cars, this is an area that has been under intensive development for years, yielding steady improvements but not the hoped-for quantum leap. That might still come, but it's hard to predict when. So even though hybrids are becoming mass market, with Toyota having sold 500,000 worldwide, it will still take years for their improved fuel economy to nudge our oil consumption trend-line, let alone for models with the anticipated "better batteries" to have a larger impact.
That's not an indication of futility, but it is a reality check as we ponder where to invest federal money and where to encourage private investment--and where little encouragement at all is needed. Looking at timelines alone is too simplistic. We also need to factor in potential impact, barriers to implementation, and costs of conversion, along with some gauge of the likelihood of success.
Better batteries look like a reasonable bet across most of these criteria. They would facilitate the large-scale use of electricity--and thus non-oil electric sources--in transportation in a way that's not possible today. They require lengthy fleet turnover, and perhaps some new infrastructure for home recharging, but they seem to have fewer barriers to overcome than, say, hydrogen. There's an important limitation to consider, however. So far nothing in the improved-battery hybrid car energy chain offers the potential for breaking through the thermal efficiency limitations imposed by the use of heat engines. That's why hydrogen is so alluring, if we can overcome the problems of making, storing and transporting it. A hydrogen fuel cell can double or triple the efficiency of an internal combustion engine, and that justifies a lot of patient R&D funding in this area.
Compare this with a better internal combustion engine. The potential impact would be quick but incremental. The area under the curve--total system fuel economy gains--could well be bigger than for improved hybrids within the next 10 years, though the benefits flatten out quickly. Barriers to implementation are low, as are relative costs of conversion, and likelihood of success is high. Given all that, why invest scarce federal R&D dollars in this, rather than providing some tax credits to manufacturers and letting them get on with it?
But however one apportions the mix of R&D funding, there is a hard truth that must be reckoned with: there is no new technology that can reduce our oil consumption by millions of barrels per day by 2010. The only factor that can bring about a major change within that interval is behavioral change, whether it's voluntary or stimulated by economics--prices, taxes and/or incentives. The silver bullet at this point is self-discipline, not some cool design.