Monday, June 30, 2008

The Anti-Manhattan Project

If rising oil prices truly constitute an oil shock capable of destabilizing the economy, and if climate change poses a threat not just to the weather, but to our security, then it is fair to say that we face an urgent and complexly-linked challenge requiring immediate action. Nothing could be less consistent with that view of our present situation than the recent decision by the Bureau of Land Management to impose a two-year moratorium on new projects to generate solar power from federal lands in the West. Its appearance in the midst of a lengthy struggle within the Congress to renew expiring investment and production tax credits for solar, wind, and other forms of renewable electricity is yet another symptom of our disjointed approach to the defining crises of our times. It also suggests that our biggest need may not be for a monumental, government-led R&D effort, but rather for a comprehensive streamlining of the mechanisms for deploying the technologies we already have.

Sometimes it's good to pause and reflect, rather than blurting out one's first reaction to a news item such as this. If I had written a posting about this story on Friday, it would have probably turned into a rant against bureaucracy, when in truth the folks at BLM are just doing their jobs within the charter they've been given--and with considerable encouragement from mainstream environmental groups that are concerned about the impact of large-scale development on the desert southwest, a region for which I have a particular fondness. But that does not make this decision any less myopic, viewed in the larger context of the necessity to construct large-scale clean-energy alternatives, in order to make the transition away from our multiply-unsustainable reliance on fossil fuels. In particular, utility-scale solar thermal power represents an especially promising pathway for delivering predictable quantities of electrical power into existing power grids, as an alternative to coal-fired power plants. The states included in the ban possess the country's most promising solar resources.

Over the last several years, as energy prices mounted, pundits and politicians regularly issued calls for a new Manhattan or Apollo Project approach to solve our energy problems. I'm not convinced, however, that we need another massive, centrally-directed research effort. R&D must certainly play a role, as evidenced by the DOE's recent feasibility scenario for expanding wind power to supply 20% of US electricity. Technology has been developing at an impressive rate for a variety of options, with help from growing infusions of capital from the private sector, and these efforts should be supported. But without consistent policy at the federal level, and in the absence of a fast track to implementation, to enable projects based on these technologies to be built by the gigawatt, we will be left with the current set of unappealing trade-offs between economic growth, energy imports, and global environmental impact for many years longer than necessary.

Instead of a new Manhattan Project for energy, I wonder if we should revive the old position of "energy czar" and endow it with enough authority to coordinate and streamline the federal response to our conjoined energy-and-environment crisis. The reorganization of the national intelligence community along these lines may have delivered mixed results so far, but while energy is as complex as intelligence, it is surely less ambiguous and subjective. Even a czar who could merely remind agencies such as the BLM that our problems are too urgent to take a two-year time-out would serve a useful purpose.

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