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High oil prices have unleashed a flood of venture capital and creative genius on the problems of energy and global warming. Hardly a day goes by without another credible breakthrough in turning sun, wind, waves, water and who-knows-what into useful energy. Even if the vast majority of those ideas don't pan out, the surviving ideas will probably be enough to make oil obsolete. That's my guess anyway. And I think it will happen at Internet speed when it finally ramps up, not the usual fifty year horizons you always hear about.

The thing I wonder is whether the government has any useful role in fostering these advances, other than staying out of the way. You hear the candidates for president talking about encouraging this, or incenting that, or catalyzing whatever. But when billions of dollars of profit are on the line, does anyone need any extra incentive? I doubt it. The market should be taking care of that stuff, and seems to be moving in the right direction.

What can a president do to make any difference in the energy situation? Be specific. Discuss.
 
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Sep 2, 2008
I'm your age, live in your neighborhood, and have worked in energy technology my whole career (currently plug-in hybrids). In my experience regulation that creates meaningful goals and creates a level playing field works, spending money on technology does not.

Things that work:
Air quality standards
Safety standards
CAFE standards

Things that don't work:
The government picking technology to fund.

I have been very successful getting grant money from NIST, DOE, DOT, DOD, NASA, CARB (California Air Resources Board), and CEC (California Energy Commission). In order to get this money you have to basically go sideways from doing anything commercially viable. There is no trickle down, cross pollination, or whatever. You do the work, write a report, then write another grant proposal. Succeed or fail, the result is the same - you finish the job and then go get more money. I've gotten 8-figure funding for my company over the past 12 years and I stopped a couple years ago - I just won't go after this money anymore. I can't stomach it. Nothing comes of it.

I think the government should fund only such development that cannot be left in the hands of private industry - like designing and building nuclear explosives. A lightly regulated market will take care of everything else.

Obviously, I agree with your instinct that the government is most effective in this realm when it stays out of the way.
 
 
-1 Rank Up Rank Down
Sep 2, 2008
Two separate, but (I feel) related quotes:
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A president can supply tax breaks to corporations and grants to universities and national labs to jumpstart research and experimentation into areas that might not otherwise be economically viable.
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The government can promote and accelerate any technology it wants to expand. Think Manhattan project.
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Here's the thing, though, the Manhattan Project was a relatively small, if expensive, project with a very narrow aim: make an atomic bomb. It wasn't, "Change the balance of power in the world and end the war," even if that was what it ended up doing. It was just to make the bomb. Sure there were other intentions, but those weren't left up to the project itself.

On the flip side of that coin, we have the ethanol programs established during the Current Occupant's administration, with the help of Congress. These were massively funded, widespread, and incredibly broad in nature, the sort of, "Change the world and our whole energy economy," thing. They don't seem to have worked very well. I'm not going to blame the whole world food situation on it (that would be dumb, almost nothing ever has just one root cause), but it has almost certainly played a role in the reallocation of corn from food to fuel, resulting in such stories as people in Haiti eating mud pies just so they don't feel hunger pains.

I'm not saying that no broad government program can ever work. But they're less likely to do so (or at least do so properly, as intended) than narrow ones. And humans aren't quite smart enough to work out all the consequences of the sort of sweeping programs that make headlines. Especially within such a forum as the government where profit and other incentives don't hold.

So maybe a grant for work on a better battery here. And a grant on improving hydrogen electrolysis there. But really, companies are going to get benefits from these (and potentially huge benefits they are), so can't we just let them to pony up, either to their research departments, or to the research arms of universities, if they prefer. The side benefit is they have a much greater incentive to, "Make it work," than does the government when making such investments. They need to try to be prudent and try to conclude what will work best, while the government can just spend willy-nilly if it likes.
 
 
+3 Rank Up Rank Down
Sep 2, 2008
I like Pournelle's idea of a bunch of large prizes for certain technology goals. Clearly, it's not a new idea, but he has been advocating prizes for SSTO, private space stations, private moon bases for prizes of up to $20 Billion since the 80's.

McCain is advocating a $300 Million prize for battery technologies that meet certain goals; Obama has dismissed that as a 'gimmick', and seemed to advocate something more along the lines of a Manhattan or Apollo project. I rather disagree - the X-Prize spawned at least 4 companies still existing today seeking to make space flight cheaper and more commonplace, for the pittance of $20 million (plus some small administrative costs). A prize sets a priority, and creates a competitive urgency that makes things happen faster, creates a community, etc. A lot of these things will get made eventually, but a few billion dollars in prizes will make that happen just that much faster, and would be money well spent.
 
 
-3 Rank Up Rank Down
Sep 2, 2008
I live in a reasonably beautiful area, surrounded by industrial wasteland, surrounded again by extraordinary natural beauty. There is a plan to put wind turbines in the wasteland portion and needless to say, there is a lobby of people protesting that the turbines would somehow make the area worse.

It is perfectly clear that turbines would significantly improve the area by giving people something to look at so they could pretend the rest doesn't exist.

Perhaps I'm unusual in liking both unspoiled landscapes AND !$%* off hi-tech-looking windmills, but given the protests, I am alone in advocating turbines in this area.

Well, *almost* alone. The protest group has !$%*!$% some pretty lame signs about the place with pictures of wind turbines crossed out. However, some other group has been taking the signs away.

I'm not sure which group is the more self-satisfied, but I know which one ought to be.
 
 
Sep 2, 2008
Keep government out of the private sector. However, staying out of the way isn't enough. They need to try and not make things worse by invading small countries and raising taxes.

-Mene Tekel
mandatorychaos.blogspot.com
 
 
Sep 2, 2008
Assuming we are only speaking about energy, making oil obsolete is a laudable goal, but making oil obsolete period? you must not understand the world in which you live. Oil is used to make almost everything we do in a daily basis, from the plastics in the computers you use to read and post these blogs, to the containers that hold 50% of our food, to the clothes some of us wear. Plus the roads we drive on, the roofiong on our homes, and the list goes on and on. If we all stopped driving tomorrow, we still would need 5 million bbl per day.
 
 
Sep 2, 2008
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User Name: fester60613 Sep 2, 2008

After reading the other comments I admit that I'm repulsed by the idea of raising taxes on consumers: we're in bad enough shape as it is without adding new taxes to the shrinking middle class. Taxes are properly applied to those who can afford to pay them - the rich, and the corporations, especially the obscenely wealthy oil companies!
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Socialist Alert!
The middle class is shrinking, and those people are moving up to the upper class. Sorry to disappoint you. Taxes should be paid by all people, not just the wealthy. Anyone who receives government services should pay taxes, and if you don't like paying taxes it should be a good reason to vote out any politician that is not for reducing the size of government. A disconnect between who funds the government and who benefits will not only cause for a weaker economy but also more corruption.

So what do oil companies do with all that money, eat it? Your oil company propaganda is absurd. Taxes should be reduced on everyone and every company (we have the 2nd highest business tax rate in the industrialized world.)
 
 
Sep 2, 2008
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User Name: bcarver@yahoo.com
American government is a corrupt plutocracy inimical to the ideals on which it was founded, having transitioned across the entire spectrum from democracy to plutocracy over the last 200 years. Rcognizing this is the first step in fixing our problems. A radical restructuring of the government to eliminate the plutocrats is necessary to find real solutions.

Once the plutocracy is overthrown, the government should then confiscate all bank and oil company assets and grant that money to individuals with a proven track record in engineering advancements which are related to the problem of generating cheap energy. No corporations should be given any of this money, just individuals. They could then work toward a permanent solution to the problem of cheap energy.

Lacking that, we should just sit back and watch the whole corrupt House of Cards collapse of its own rot. ///


Communist alert. That's the last thing we need, as you'll never get the government like that, it'll end up going wrong. Crazy communist idealist who doesn't understand reality .

I agree with Scott, we don't need any government involvement in this, no subsidies, nothing. Subsidizing one technology which isn't proven could have a terrible effect in discriminating against another technology with a lot more promise. The government needs to back away, ease some regulations, and let the free market work this out in 10-20 years. In the meantime, restrictions should be lifted on drilling for oil and gas to ease immediate pricing.

If you watch the show Fast Money you'd know that just the thought that Gov. Palin might start to talk about drilling in ANWR is already having an effect on oil prices. We just need to let all energy be developed with equal regulations so that the cheapest and best technologies will emerge in the near-term and long-term.
 
 
Sep 2, 2008
Unfortunately - NOTHING. There is absolutely nothing the new president can do to have any significant effect on energy development. The laws have already been passed by congress that completely cripples any potential large-scale energy development. Sure, you could 'open' areas to drilling or nuclear plants or solar array production but any environmental audit and well-funded NIMBYs will slow progress to a crawl regardless of good intentions by anyone in government.
 
 
Sep 2, 2008
More taxes or government are the LAST thing we need. The best that government could do is leave things alone and let people innovate. As Scott points out, the massive profits to be made are all the incentive needed. There's already a solution that's very interesting and promises the ability to not only provide enough hydrogen to power everyone's car (screw mass transit -- it does NOT work well and costs the moon to build and operate), but it even solves the distribution infrastructure issue (i.e., how do you get the hydrogen from where it's made to the "filling station").

It involves a different way of looking at physics, which has been controversial, but is gaining acceptance -- there's more and more experimental evidence to support it.

www.blacklightpower.com

 
 
Sep 2, 2008
American government is a corrupt plutocracy inimical to the ideals on which it was founded, having transitioned across the entire spectrum from democracy to plutocracy over the last 200 years. Rcognizing this is the first step in fixing our problems. A radical restructuring of the government to eliminate the plutocrats is necessary to find real solutions.

Once the plutocracy is overthrown, the government should then confiscate all bank and oil company assets and grant that money to individuals with a proven track record in engineering advancements which are related to the problem of generating cheap energy. No corporations should be given any of this money, just individuals. They could then work toward a permanent solution to the problem of cheap energy.

Lacking that, we should just sit back and watch the whole corrupt House of Cards collapse of its own rot.
 
 
Sep 2, 2008
After reading the other comments I admit that I'm repulsed by the idea of raising taxes on consumers: we're in bad enough shape as it is without adding new taxes to the shrinking middle class. Taxes are properly applied to those who can afford to pay them - the rich, and the corporations, especially the obscenely wealthy oil companies!
 
 
Sep 2, 2008
I'm still hung up on the fact that Reagan (spit cough choke curse) threw away the alternative energy program that Carter set up after the oil embargo of the early 70s.
The best thing the president can do is to write legislation that taxex the hell out of obscene oil profits, and to spend those taxes specifically on the development of alternative energy sources.
 
 
Sep 2, 2008
Looking at history, the government is good at sponsoring, through grants and other institutions, primary research which is then used by for profit companies (NIH, grants to colleges, etc...). A large percentage of "cutting edge" businesses use government paid primary research (the satellites this post is going through was put up by the government).

They can also act as an accelerant once a viable plan is produced. Access to capital through tax cuts, land grants, etc... can help as well (think solar panel tax breaks). The government is also a consumer and a big one, so they can not only help with speeding up products, but can then buy them on the other side until the cost comes down to human levels. This is what happens with defense tech - carbon fibers were so expensive that only the military could afford them when they were first invented, and had the military not bought them, they probably wouldn't have been developed to the point where the cost to produce them got low enough that they could appear in golf clubs, and now they appear in housewares. I don't know this for sure, but it wouldn't surprise me if the primary research into carbon fibers was done through governmental grants as well.

They can also use tax code (and other laws) as a punisher of the status quo to force more innovation. We'd have better green power now if the government taxed gas an extra $1 a gallon starting in 2000. We'd have better cars and lower gas prices if the cafe standards were raised years ago as was tried. California is doing this right now by mandating green power percentages by a target year. This is probably the most powerful tool in the government's arsenal as it creates more motivation for innovation on a strategic level.

The opposite is true as well, if we were to lower the gas tax, it would hurt the innovators.
 
 
-3 Rank Up Rank Down
Sep 2, 2008
Hi Scott,

The government can promote and accelerate any technology it wants to expand. Think Manhattan project. The government could adopt the Pickens Plan or Gore’s plan to reduce dependence on oil, spend the money and it will happen. The problem is, that such efforts tend to be pretty narrow so lots of ideas will be ignored. To get lots of ideas happening the government needs to support business in general, kind of like McCain cutting wanting to cut corporate taxes. The government can do what it wants, it just needs some focus.

Pardon the political commentary,

dsg
 
 
Sep 2, 2008
@batire, he said "... other than staying out of the way". I think your "no unnecessary regulation or red tape" suggestion (and arguably your "favorable taxes" one) both come under this heading.
 
 
-2 Rank Up Rank Down
Sep 2, 2008
As has been said, the government should do away with the red tape.

Problems remaining:
1. The volume of energy consumption, it will not be easily replaceable.
2. Infrastructure, efficient mass transit trains are required.

The government heavily subsidizes cars by paying for roads. The government should instead switch to trains/subways, at least in densely populated areas. People should walk, bike, and ride mass transit trains. There is only so much oil in the ground, lets not waste it driving cars.
 
 
-2 Rank Up Rank Down
Sep 2, 2008
I think you have pointed to the way forward, when energy prices increased solutions where found and funded.
Worried about climate change? Tax carbon emission ( or carbon equivalent e.g. methane)

Worried about reliance on oil? Tax oil.

Don't want to be seen as a money grabbing politician, ear mark extra funds for (long term scientific research/ renewable power generation/ tax cuts on low emission cars)

No working? double the tax!
 
 
+4 Rank Up Rank Down
Sep 2, 2008
A president can supply tax breaks to corporations and grants to universities and national labs to jumpstart research and experimentation into areas that might not otherwise be economically viable. Sometimes good things come from what might seem like a crazy idea at first. If we get a return of 1 revolutionary idea that pans out per 100 funded to some preliminary testing phase, wouldn't that be worth it in the long run?
 
 
Sep 2, 2008
Best way to ensure that this happens? Ensure carbon-generating fuels STAYS expensive, so that billions of dollars of profit for the first guy to get everyone to adopt their technology remains true while the R&D is going on.

While unpopular politically, I believe that's the only way to ensure alternative energy research sustains its current pace.
 
 
 
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