Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Grove's plan

Now I've read Andy Grove's plan (at The American, or via Wired) to fix our energy dependence national security mess. Mr. Grove thinks, as I do, that national security is the most immediate problem we face.

There are flaws in both Grove's and Pickens' plans, but we can take good ideas from both and act on them immediately.

There are two steps to either plan:
  1. Switch our vehicles to a non-petroleum energy form
  2. Make that energy domestically
With Pickens' plan, we switch to natural gas to power cars (step 1), and simultaneously free up domestic methane production by building wind turbines (step 2). If we do step 1 without step 2, we end up switching from imported petroleum to imported natural gas, which suits Pickens quite well because he has lots of gas to sell us.

With Grove's plan, if we do step 1 without step 2, we've got a bunch of electric cars which will plug in at night. The extra demand at night will drive utilities to produce more baseload power -- coal, wind, or nuclear, in that order, all of which is domestic. The advantage of Grove's plan is that step 2 is handled by the market.

The problem with Grove's plan is that converting cars and trucks to electricity instead of natural gas is more costly. The added cost will cripple the plan in two ways:
  1. It is so much more costly that the conversion will happen more slowly. Per year, less petroleum imports will be displaced.
  2. Fewer vehicles, in the end, will be converted.
I think there are good ideas in both these plans that we should isolate and exploit immediately.

There are no forseeable battery technologies that will work on long distance trucks. The obvious substitution here is to move long distance freight by electrified train. We already have most of the rail infrastructure (rights of way are the big issue here), and the nation is already switching some cargoes back to rail. But railroads have been sick for a long time, and we have to fix them before they can help America.

Rail's crushing disadvantage compared to trucking is it's capital structure -- the fact that the same companies own the road and the trucks. Long distance trucking works because multiple companies run trucks over the same routes, which are owned and paid for by the U.S. government via tolls on the trucks and taxes on the diesel they burn. We should change rail to use this structure. The rail infrastructure should be electrified in the process, so that the independent trains can choose to run on cheaper domestically produced electricity where it is available. All the technology necessary is already developed and in production.

The good idea in Pickens' plan is to build lots (many tens of thousands) of wind turbines. Wind turbines displace imported natural gas with domestic labor, and that is the most useful part of his plan. If you then convert cars to run on natural gas rather than petroleum, you in turn displace some imported petroleum with some imported natural gas. This second step is a fine thing too, as petroleum costs more than natural gas per unit energy, but the first step is what is most important.

The United States made a terrible mistake during the 1990s by building nearly a terawatt of natural gas-fired turbines. The choice was driven by utilities who know that fuel costs can always be passed to the consumer, so that cheap gas turbines minimized investment and so maximized return on investment. The problem here is that utilities were allowed to make investments with large externalized costs. Market forces do not work to the advantage of most citizens unless the market is set up to internalize the costs that matter to the citizens. Because utilities have no sons and daughters to send to war, they cannot be allowed to make investment decisions that force us to send our sons and daughters to war.

Electric freight trains and wind turbines will not fix America's imported energy problem. Both, however, can be pursued immediately, are solid steps in the right direction that will not have to be reversed, and will make market-affecting changes in our consumption of imported energy. Both options will buy us some time during which we must develop better options.

In the medium term, we can build more nuclear power plants. These take longer than wind turbines to come on line, but the eventual impact can be much larger. The public discussion of our nuclear options is becoming more sensible, and I am beginning to hope that we may be able to begin building this infrastructure again after a two decade hiatus that has cost us terribly.

Nuclear power generation, if pursued in a sensible way, can drive the cost of electricity in the U.S. down below the cost of coal power in China, in a predictable, long-term way, which I think should be an explicit goal of our national energy policy. This will have the effect of "onshoring" basic industries that we have been moving overseas for decades. The onshoring effect is actually more powerful than displacing imported petroleum, because the imports that are replaced for a given amount of investment have higher added value.