The Elephant Under the Rug: Denial and Failed Energy Projectsby Thomas R. Blakeslee, Clearlight Foundation At the World Renewable Energy Conference in Glasgow I recently witnessed the strange phenomenon of group denial first hand. After a paper about hydrogen-fueled cars, some embarrassing questions were asked about the practicalities of storing and delivering hydrogen to the cars. The questions were dismissed and the questioners meekly backed down. I wanted to jump in and set them straight but keenly felt the group pressure to not ruin the party. I couldn't do it!
Groupthink is a strange phenomenon resulting from our deep genetic programming as herd animals: If our peer group is ignoring the giant lump in the living room rug, we will naturally imitate their behavior and walk around the elephant hidden there. We tend to be drawn into a sort of mass hallucination where everyone conforms to an unspoken agreement to ignore the inconvenient but obvious truth. We walk around the lump without consciously seeing it.
Group denial can be dangerous. The housing bubble and the dotcom bubble are recent disastrous examples. The loan officers, realtors, journalists, investment bankers and regulators that caused the housing bubble were all blind to the developing problem as they rationalized and convinced themselves that every thing was OK. It is now painfully clear that they were unconsciously caught up in a fantasy world of denial. When you're making lots of money, it's natural to think that you must be brilliant. Your peer group supports you and nobody wants to spoil the party. It's not intentional, just human nature.
I learned a lot about group denial eight years ago when I lost millions on dotcom stocks. It seemed so certain that those hot stocks would regain their past glory. I was drawn deeply into dotcom denial. There were voices speaking the truth then, but my peer group and I kept the faith and laughed together at them.
U.S. energy policy has developed several similar delusions where people are still getting rich pursuing failed projects that should have been abandoned years ago. Mare than half of our US $4 billion DOE science budget is being spent to keep alive failed programs. Saving face and saving contracts has made denial the order of the day. Billions in subsidy money finance a war chest for lobbying that keeps these programs alive.
Let's look closer at the denial of fatal flaws in three major DOE programs where money is being spent recklessly and entire industries, government agencies and journalists are in group denial:
The Hydrogen Initiative: US $246 million 2009 budget
Honda now has a few beautiful, finished-looking, FCX hydrogen cars on the road. But wait! How do we produce and distribute the hydrogen that runs them? The tanker trucks that replenish gasoline stations can carry about 300 fill-ups. However, hydrogen takes up much more space and requires high-pressure cylinders that weigh 65 times as much as the hydrogen they contain! One giant 13 ton hydrogen delivery truck can carry only about 10 fill-ups! By ignoring this fatal flaw in the hydrogen economy idea we have created the illusion of success that is grossly inefficient compared to electric cars. Well-to-wheel efficiency analysis of the Honda FCX shows that the Tesla pure electric car is 3X more efficient and produces 1/3 the CO2 emissions!
Group denial makes us ignore obvious but inconvenient truths like the inherent inefficiency of the hydrogen economy. It was overlooked when the project was conceived, which is forgivable, but now denial makes us overlook it when we should know better. Batteries charged from the grid are clearly a better way to go; yet the DOE budget for battery development is less than one-fifth of the hydrogen budget.
Electrical distribution for overnight recharging is already installed in virtually every home that has a car. Batteries can store and retrieve that electricity with 95% efficiency to drive motors that are 90% efficient. Hydrogen would require a whole new fueling infrastructure. But why bother? It can't begin to compete with electricity because the efficiency of producing, transporting, storing and then converting hydrogen to electricity with a fuel cell is pathetic by comparison.
When I have a writing deadline it gives me great energy for fixing things around the house to avoid facing the real problem. That's exactly what we have done in the hydrogen initiative. We had great fun creating a nifty looking car. Now if we could just figure out a way to get fuel to it that is competitive with charging a battery we would really have something.
Nuclear Power: US $1.4 Billion 2009 budget, $44 billion spent so far
The heavily subsidized nuclear industry died in 1979 when the Three-mile island and Chernobyl accidents made it painfully clear that the radioactive substances used were just too dangerous to be spread all over the map. Both accidents could have been much worse had a real meltdown occurred.
Denial has become easier today as memories fade it is much easier to pretend there is no problem and get on board the "nuclear renaissance." It's very similar to the recent housing bubble (renaissance), which was only possible because memories of the previous housing bubble that burst in 1990 had faded. The federal government bailout from our housing bubble may cost a trillion dollars before we are through. Amazingly, the "nuclear renaissance" is built on the promise of a similar bailout included in the 2005 energy bill: Nuclear accidents will have a maximum liability to the builder of only US $10.9 billion. If there is a meltdown, taxpayers have been generously volunteered to pay for any excess damages! Sandia estimated that damages could reach US $600 billion but we are optimistic because our memories have faded since the last disaster.
The 9/11 attacks showed us how easily a meltdown could be arranged by a well-aimed terrorist-hijacked airliner crash. In fact, if you're a terrorist, the possibilities with nuclear fuel and waste stored all over the map will be endless. The "nuclear renaissance" will be a bonanza for terrorists.
A Safe Way to Harness Nuclear Power
Nuclear elements in the earth are continually decaying, producing so much heat that the core of the earth is about 6000°C, hotter than the surface of the sun. In fact, 99.9% of the earth's volume is hot enough to boil water. We can generate all the electric power we need from that heat by simply drilling through the earth's crust and using water to carry the underground heat up to turbine generators on the earth's surface. This way we leave the dangerous radioactive elements where they are and simply use the heat they naturally generate to run our power plants.
This may sound like an impossible dream, but it is already being done profitably, producing 10 gigawatts of electricity worldwide at costs competitive with coal. It is called geothermal power generation. The source of heat in geothermal power is the decay of uranium and thorium in rocks safely sequestered underground. It is crazy is to dig these dangerous elements out, concentrate them and ship them to dangerous reactors just to boil water to run generators.
With geothermal power we boil the water by sending it down a well to the hot rocks. Steam comes out of a second well nearby and drives a turbine generator. Simple and safe! The steam is condensed and recycled, so water consumption is minimal. No pollution no dangerous waste and no fuel cost. What's the catch? Geothermal power is as cheap as coal in areas where the earth's crust is thin but drilling costs currently make it too expensive in most parts of the world. A breakthrough in drilling technology could make it practical everywhere.
Geothermal drilling is expensive mainly because we are using technology developed for oil exploration. Geothermal power requires deeper, larger holes, often through hard rock. If just 5% of the US $70 billion in federal money already lavished on nuclear power had been spent on drilling technology, we could have geothermal power virtually anywhere today. Hydrothermal spalling technology is capable of drilling five times faster through hard rock but zero federal money is available for its development. Google recently made a US $11 million investment in this technology.
No new nuclear power plants have been built in thirty years. The few plants now under construction are years behind schedule and billions over budget. Any plants in planning today will not be complete until at least 2020 and will be very expensive. With an aggressive drilling research program geothermal plants could fill our baseload power needs much sooner and at lower cost.
Clean Coal Technology: US $754 million 2009 budget
Coal power generation began a steep decline in 1983 when the horrendous pollution problems it was creating became impossible to ignore. Memories fade so denial has created a "renaissance" in coal spurred by a marvelous invention called "clean coal." This oxymoron doesn't actually exist but sounds like just the thing for solving our energy problems.
The problem is that "clean coal" will never be economical because when we burn coal each carbon atom joins with two oxygen atoms so every ton of coal we burn produces 3.7 tons of CO2! That currently amounts to nearly 10 billion tons of CO2 per year! One of the research projects budgeted for 2009 will try to sequester one million tons of CO2 per year. That's a mere fraction of the amount we need to hide! It's only 5% of what a single large power plant can produce.
Denial allows us to ignore this as a minor detail that can be worked out later. In reality the whole idea is clearly flawed and not economical. The "clean coal" initiative is a crash program to rescue a powerful industry, not a credible attempt to solve our energy problems. If we spent even a fraction of the money wasted on this boondoggle to develop advanced geothermal drilling technology we could quickly solve our energy problems and put a stop to the terrible environmental destruction being wreaked by coal.
Our energy policymaking has been hijacked by the coal and nuclear industries. They have sabotaged appropriations that have real potential for solving our energy problems and directed vast billions instead to keeping their dying industries alive. Technology could solve our energy and pollution problems if we could just free ourselves from the political stranglehold of these heavily subsidized industries.
Thomas R. Blakeslee is president of The Clearlight Foundation, a non-profit organization that invests in renewable energy and other socially useful companies and issues cash grants to individuals who are working effectively for change.