Sustainability Made Easy? R&D and Energy Technopolitics

Wind turbine

One of the 120 Acciona wind turbines of the Tatanka Wind Energy project (DOE/NREL, Todd Spink).

This is not to say that nuclear power won’t play a role in American power production in coming years. But operating the existing 104 U.S. reactors presents major problems that further R&D may not be able to quickly solve. Often touted as a limitless energy source, natural uranium is in relatively short supply. Proven reserves amount to around 3.5 million tons, enough to fire reactors for 50 years at the current consumption rate. The industry’s preferred solution is to close the nuclear fuel cycle by reusing spent fuel. A chief candidate is mixed-oxide (MOX) fuel, an amalgam of plutonium and uranium. But the facilities required to produce this substance could also easily be used to manufacture weapons-grade materials. Given the global reach of the nuclear power industry, the Carter administration committed to permanently store depleted nuclear fuel. The 20-year gestation of the still-unfinished Yucca Mountain repository in Nevada shows just how expensive, technically difficult, and unpopular this venture is.

Much is made of "Generation IV” reactors, a range of advanced designs including several types capable of “breeding” more fuel than they consume by using neutron bombardment to transmute materials that cannot sustain a chain reaction like uranium-238 into fissile materials like plutonium 239. Under study by the Department of Energy, these costly and complex power sources are more volatile and difficult to control than conventional pressurized water reactors. And they are highly controversial—in effect they would bring about a plutonium economy, creating new problems of safely transporting and disposing of large quantities of this highly toxic element.

Renewable Alternatives

The United States has invested far less in renewable energy sources than in nuclear power. Nevertheless, wind, passive solar, geothermal, and cogenerated power devices and conservation materials have entered widespread service in varying degrees around the world. These technologies did not require sustained research into their basic physical properties in order to become commercialized, which made it possible to quickly install them into the existing infrastructure and measure their success. Photovoltaic (PV) power, another important sustainable energy-power device, is a different story.

Unlike passive solar power, which consists of materials that capture and use solar energy as heat, PV cells produce electricity by absorbing photons that pass their energy to electrons. An offshoot of semiconductor technology, the PV cell was developed by Bell Laboratories in 1954. They were first applied in spacecraft but were not tested in terrestrial civilian roles on a large scale until the mid-1970s. As with most new power sources, the key thrust of research has been cost reduction—making devices that produce more power during their lifetimes than it took to construct them. This was achieved with PV panels in the early 2000s. Second-generation commercial cells using crystalline silicon—currently the most common light-gathering material—have a lifetime of between 25 and 35 years and recover their manufacturing energy in 1 to 4 years. The technology is particularly suitable in areas where power is expensive and solar irradiation (insolation) is greatest, such as California. Researchers hope third-generation photovoltaic substances— organic dyes and polymers, inorganic layers and nanocrystals applied as films to substrates or matrixes— can improve efficiency and cut manufacturing costs by reducing the amount of material in solar panels.

As with nuclear power, demand for PV as a power supply often has to be fostered. In 1999 Germany began offering generous grants and loans to stimulate production and purchase solar panels under the “100,000 Roofs” program, which ended in 2003. A national feed-in tariff enacted in 2000 compelled utilities to purchase solar power at preferential rates. By the end of 2007 Germany led the world with nearly 4,000 megawatts of installed PV peak power capacity. Japan, with a similar program, is second with nearly 2,000 megawatts. The United States has far greater solar potential than either of these nations, concentrated mainly in the Southwest. But its subsidies and incentives are much less comprehensive. Only a little over 800 megawatts of PV power has been installed in the United States. By way of comparison 1 megawatt of power produced in a coal-fired thermal plant is equivalent to the electricity used by 400 to 900 homes in one year. It is important to note, however, that all power sources supply only a portion of their rated capacities. Both wind and solar devices typically operate at efficiencies much lower than 50% because of the intermittent nature of wind and terrestrial sunshine.

Although other countries have successfully adopted solar power largely using established PV technology that originated with government-funded innovation, critics charge that public cash has cushioned the real cost of this technology. Others take a different view. In their book Apollo’s Fire: Igniting America’s Clean Energy Economy, Jay Inslee and Bracken Hendricks contend that the full social, economic, and environmental costs of petroleum and nuclear systems are vastly higher and are themselves socialized. They claim political will, much more than a technological breakthrough, is the chief catalyst enabling sustainable energy and power systems to take root.

Lessons from the Automobile Industry

In some cases U.S. federal energy R&D has become so highly politicized that it has become an end in itself. This occurred with automobile technology after the California Air Resources Board (CARB) passed the Zero Emission Vehicle mandate in 1990. Although the automobile industry had traditionally framed the terms of automotive R&D, the Zero Emission Vehicle mandate compelled it to build and market large numbers of battery electric passenger vehicles. Because of their investment in the ICE, the auto mobile and oil industries bitterly resisted. In an effort to reconcile the conflicting interest groups, the Clinton administration launched the Partnership for a New Generation of Vehicles (PNGV) in 1993. A publicprivate venture, the PNGV aimed to improve the fuel economy of the average 1994 passenger sedan by approximately 300% over 10 years without compromising comfort or performance. If this could be done, the hope was that market demand would increase the efficiency of the light-duty fleet without the need for government intervention.

But in reality Detroit was uninterested in producing such automobiles when cheap gasoline made it tremendously profitable to build sport-utility vehicles and light trucks, and the federal government had no intention of forcing the industry to do otherwise. By 2000 Japanese automakers had two commercial hybrids available in the United States, Toyota’s Prius and Honda’s Insight. By contrast, American automakers had no similar products on the market and were forced to play catch-up to meet demand from customers who increasingly took environmental impact into account when purchasing a new car. Detroit began promoting the fuel-cell electric automobile as its preferred zero-emission vehicle entrant. In 2002 the Bush administration replaced the PNGV with FreedomCAR (Cooperative Automotive Research), another public-private partnership but devoted instead to developing the fuel cell—a device that combines hydrogen and oxygen in an electrochemical reaction that produces electricity and water—as a replacement for the battery in the electric vehicle. Industry and government believed the power source could be developed as an “electrochemical engine,” a hybrid of heat engine and battery able to electro-oxidize cheap hydrogenous fuels. But building such a device proved extremely difficult. After several years of inconclusive research, analysts began suggesting that hydrogen was the only practical fuel for fuel cells.