The Deepwater Horizon; mountaintop-removal coal mining; global warming and glacial melting from the burning of fossil fuels. You might expect the man in charge of United States energy security to be glum about the future, but despite his intense concerns regarding carbon emissions, Steven Chu is optimistic that science may yet bail us out. The first physicist to take the post, and the first Nobel laureate (for work using lasers to cool and trap atoms), Chu has $39 billion in Recovery Act dollars to dole out and an unprecedented opportunity to foster big ideas. In the near term, he says, simple measures like energy-efficient homes and white-painted roofs could make a major dent in our carbon budget. For the future, look to radical solutions like glucose-based fuels, smart storage, or tiny mass-produced nuclear power plants. His sunniest prediction: Our economy could be largely carbon-neutral by 2050.
The Gulf Coast oil spill was horrifying. How could an accident of this magnitude occur? Oil reserves open to non-opec countries and companies are in increasingly remote places, offshore or in Alaska. When something goes wrong, there is very little instrumentation to tell you about the things we used to see or touch, like which valves are closed or open or what the pressure is in different sections of the platform. You don’t understand the condition of the apparatus or the well and you can’t send people down there. We’ve had to go to exotic things like gamma-ray imaging to figure out the state of the valves.
Where should we focus our long-term energy investment? Oil is a finite resource and you’ve got to start thinking of ways to off-load the need. It won’t happen overnight. First, we’ll make much more energy-efficient vehicles, and that’s going to save a lot of money and will make us more competitive by eliminating about $1 billion a day in imports. Second, we are moving toward electrification of personal vehicles for traveling 300 miles or less. Third, we want alternatives for liquid transportation fuels: glucose, agricultural waste products, lumber waste products.
Are we also returning to nuclear power?I think there will be a renaissance in nuclear power, although whether it’s going to occur in the United States has yet to be determined. Across the world, ground has been broken for roughly 50 or more nuclear power plants; China has broken ground for 25 of them. We are building our first two new nuclear reactors since the early 1970s at the Vogtle Electric Generating Plant [in eastern Georgia], and that’s a start.
Do small nuclear reactors have a brighter future here? We think this is a big opportunity. In the past it was felt that you get an economy of scale by building a very big nuclear reactor because of permitting and other issues. But big reactors have some disadvantages. Number one is the sheer cost: $7 billion to $8 billion. A lot of companies aren’t willing to make the whole investment. Second, depending on where the large power plants are sited, the distribution infrastructure and cooling capacity may not accommodate them. So instead of achieving economy of scale by making big nuclear reactors, you achieve it by quasi-mass-producing smaller ones. The core of the reactor can be manufactured in a factory-like situation and then transported intact by rail or ship to different parts of the country or world. You are substituting economy of scale by size with economy of scale by number.
Meanwhile, our economy is still based on fossil fuels. Will carbon sequestration become more important? It’s a this-century issue. Maybe by the next century we will have mastered the ability to capture more of the energy hitting the earth and long-term massive distribution and storage. Over the next couple of decades, some see coal use doubling in the developing world, with the United States exporting it to India and China. We have to develop the technologies that will clean up this coal.
This sounds like FutureGen, the public-private effort to create the world’s first coal-fueled zero-emissions power plant.
As China turns off its very inefficient old coal plants, it’s turning on very efficient [new] coal plants—but these plants use standard pulverized coal. What FutureGen asks is, “Can you take an existing coal plant and retrofit it to capture not only carbon dioxide but other pollutants?” We think this may be a less expensive way of retrofitting existing plants.
Putting all this together, could we be mostly carbon-free in the United States by 2050?
It’s ambitious but it’s possible. The cleanest form of nuclear power is the sun. The amount of energy hitting Earth is more than 10,000 times what we need. If we achieve even 1 percent efficiency at low cost and we can store the energy, we’ll have enough for nine and a half billion people without polluting the world. The laws of physics say it’s possible. We don’t have to invent something better than the sun. It’s the sun that gives us solar, hydro, the wind, and the waves.
This would be a better use of the sun than we’ve managed so far. The sun has been storing fossil fuels for hundreds of millions of years and we’re using them up in hundreds of years, so that’s a problem. Think back to the mid-1800s, when the United States was the leader in the whaling industry. Whale oil was a very clean oil, and when burned, it gave a very bright, white light. It was highly treasured, so what did they do? They depleted the local whales and had to go farther and farther out, so pretty soon our whaling ships were going all around the globe. And occasionally you got some angry whales. Moby-Dick was actually fashioned after a true story of a sperm whale attacking boats and sinking them. But really, you had an unsustainable industry going into deeper waters, going into more danger, until the entire thing was depleted.
The analogy to our current problems is pretty clear. Except the stakes are a heck of a lot bigger now. You can listen to the string quartet on the Titanic and enjoy the last glass of champagne, or you can fix this problem. There’s an old expression from Winston Churchill that “America invariably does the right thing after exhausting all other possibilities.” We don’t have time for that anymore. What are you going to say to your kids and grandkids? “I’m sorry; you will be poorer and have less opportunity than I did. You will live in a world that is far more polluted than the world I was born into.” Come on. There’s no zero-sum game here. It’s just like the green revolution or the Industrial Revolution: In developed countries, these gave everyone better lives. There’s no law of physics that says the whole society can’t benefit.