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).

The period witnessed a resurgence of the idea of a “hydrogen economy,” a utopian energy and power scheme first broached in the early 1970s. Supporters often referred to hydrogen as though it were an inexhaustible primary energy source when in fact it is an energy carrier bound in biomass and fossil fuels. In January 2003 President George W. Bush announced the Hydrogen Fuel Initiative (HFI), a $700 million hydrogen production R&D effort to complement FreedomCAR. Planners styled these programs as a panacea that would make American light-duty transportation sustainable and energy-independent without compromising the performance and comfort consumers had come to expect from their automobiles. Crucially, the HFI made no provision for infrastructure procurement—costs estimated between $80 to $200 billion.

Today FreedomCAR and the HFI have been all but forgotten, and the notion of a hydrogen economy is largely dismissed. Political and industrial leaders have been unwilling to invest in a new automotive fuel and power source system and the new industrial revolution that it implied. Instead they have supported a less radical alternative-energy megaproject that would preserve the place of the ICE in the U.S. transportation system. Unlike the hydrogen economy, biofuels have attracted a broad political constituency, primarily in midwestern agricultural areas. Thanks to a 51¢ per gallon tax credit and congressional lobbying, ethanol production has been gradually increased over the years, from 81 million barrels in 2004, composing about 2% of U.S. gasoline consumption, to about 171 million barrels by the end of 2007, almost all of it derived from corn. The Energy Independence and Security Act (EISA) of 2007 mandated a massive production increase to 2.3 million barrels a day or 857 million barrels a year by 2022.

This enterprise has several problems, and not all of them can be easily solved solely by R&D. Planners gave little thought to the infrastructure necessary for the ethanol boom and, as during the fuel-cell boom, assumed that alcohol fuels could be easily handled by existing petroleum-fuel storage and transport systems. This assumption proved wrong. Ethanol is contaminated by water present in gasoline pipelines, so it must be shipped by more expensive road and rail systems. This is a major consideration since the primary markets are on the East and West Coasts. A more difficult problem is volume. Owing to the very high cost of producing ethanol from cereal grain, 380 million barrels of the EISA’s 2022 quota must be produced from cellulose, or nonfood biomass. This method requires developing cheap enzymes that can break down this tough material. While such a process has been accomplished in the laboratory, it has not yet been commercialized. Although the EISA does not specify precisely how the 2022 target will be met, large doses of public cash will likely be necessary. A February 2008 study by Mindy L. Baker, Dermot J. Hayes, and Bruce A. Babcock of Iowa State University calculated that in the best-case scenario, nearly $25 billion would be required to meet the EISA’s goals for cellulosic ethanol alone. In subsidizing an expensive synthetic fuel that can satisfy only a small fraction of gasoline demand, the study adds, the government is stimulating massive inflation in the agricultural sector.

R&D in the Age of Permanent Crisis

History suggests that policy makers will continue to believe that technology can offer sustainable, abundant energy. But the unspoken question about energy policy is whether this is a worthy goal. Researchers and planners will likely continue to be disappointed as such projects encounter physical and political obstacles.

The historical development of energy and power technologies has been shaped at least as much by human judgments of value and desirability as by demand and “objective” physical factors. Government, industry, and the popular press widely assume that standards of comfort, convenience, and aesthetics in consumer technology—exemplified in the automobile—are unchanging, when in fact they undergo constant
metamorphosis. Despite their notorious conservatism, the Big Three U.S. automakers have been forced by popular dissatisfaction, fierce foreign competition, and government legislation to shift their efforts toward somewhat cleaner, more efficient, and better-built automobiles.

After years of resistance, General Motors has finally embraced the commercial hybrid electric passenger automobile. Production of the plug-in Chevrolet Volt begins in summer 2009 for sale in 2010. A decade after Toyota introduced its market segment–leading Prius, General Motors will at last field its response. Yet Detroit’s acceptance of the latest commercial alternative automobile technology has probably come too late to have a significant impact on an industry near the brink of collapse as the recession bleeds consumers of discretionary income.

As old energy and power schemes are recycled and discarded, new ones rise in their stead. Yet the aura of omnipotence that R&D acquired in industry and government circles in the early postwar years has long since dissipated. Scholars recognize R&D as a set of social practices where the problems to be solved do not objectively emerge, but rather reflect the interests of those groups that support and benefit from these activities. Historically this process has been the prerogative of a very select group. As knowledge becomes increasingly democratized, the questions to be explored necessarily change. The Enlightenment tradition conjured nature as a vast, inexhaustible cornucopia, but researchers are now recognizing there are limits to the ways people can make physical matter conform to their desires. From this perspective the world faces a crisis not of energy or technology but of social relations. In the postindustrial era, perhaps R&D begins most profitably by asking how society can curb its appetite for resources, distribute them more equitably, and use them more efficiently. As people come to understand how energy and power technologies relate to human values, they become aware of how they have been used to create the socio-technical and cultural landscape we now live in and how they might be used to create alternative ones.

For Further Reading

Doyle, Jack. Taken for a Ride: Detroit’s Big Three and the Politics of Pollution. New York: Four Walls Eight Windows, 2000.

Inslee, Jay, and Bracken Hendricks. Apollo’s Fire: Igniting America’s Clean-Energy Economy. Washington, DC: Island Press, 2008.

Lovins, Amory B., et al. Small Is Profitable: The Hidden Economic Benefits of Making Electrical Resources the Right Size. Snowmass, CO: Rocky Mountain Institute, 2002.

Podobnik, Bruce. Global Energy Shifts: Fostering Sustainability in a Turbulent Age. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2006.

Romm, Joseph J. Hell and High Water: Global Warming—the Solution and the Politics—and What We Should Do. New York: William Morrow, 2007.

Simon, Christopher A. Alternative Energy: Political, Economic, and Social Feasibility. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2007.

Matthew N. Eisler is the Harris Steel Postdoctoral Fellow in the department of history at the University of Western Ontario (London).