CEOs to Washington: Spend on energy R&D!

Can a massive government spending program bring us closer to a clean energy economy and help fight climate change?

Absolutely, say some of the America’s most powerful CEOs and ex-CEOs, capitalists all.

Solar_PanelsMicrosoft’s Bill Gates,  Jeff Immelt of GE, Ursula Burns of Xerox, Tim Solso of Cummins and former CEOs Chad Holliday of DuPont and Norman Augustine of Lockheed Martin, along with venture capitalist John Doerr, came to Washington today to release a new report calling for the government to invest in energy innovation.

They’re calling for $16 billion a year to be spent on energy R&D. That’s more than three times the current Department of Energy research budget—although last year’s stimulus package included a one-time boost of about $37 billion for the DOE.

Yes, it’s a lot of money, but as John Doerr put it: “Americans today spend more money on potato chips than we do on energy R&D.” Yikes.

The CEOs held a press conference at the Newseum and then took their message to the White House, where they were scheduled to meet with President Obama. They were also headed for Capitol Hill, which energy-and-climate legislation has been stalled for months.

“Our job is to keep agitating and be a force for positive change,” Immelt said at the press event.

If America doesn’t get its clean-energy industry going, the GE chief said, “everybody else around the world will. This is a primary pillar of national competitiveness.”

Now let’s be clear—there is obviously some self-interest at work here. GE and Cummins, which makes diesel engines, would both benefit if the government helps research and finance clean energy. (See GE and Washington: Too cozy?) The same is true for Kleiner Perkins, which has invested in startups that need financing to get to the next level, companies like the biofuels firm Amyris and Bloom Energy, which makes fuel cells.

But this group was brought together by Gates, who is spending more time focusing on energy and climate, and it includes retired CEOs like Holliday and Augustine, who have no stake in government handouts or guarantees.  Call me naïve if you like, but I think they they’re putting their time into this because they are worried about the future. As they write in the report:

the energy challenge is much worse than most people realize. The problem is already imposing a heavy burden on our nation—a burden that will become even more costly. The economic, national security, environmental and climate costs of our current energy system will condemn our children to a seriously constrained future unless America makes significant changes to current policies and trends.

Or, as Immelt put it at today’s event: “It’s really easy to be cynical about whether something can actually be done. But I’d say status quo for this country is a losing hand, right now. We’re falling behind some of our global competitors.”

To push their agenda forward, the business people formed a group called the  American Energy Innovation Council. You can download their 32-page “business plan for America’s energy future” here, and watch them talking about energy. Here’s a short video in which their make their case:

Because I’m a skeptic about the ability of government to spend that much money smartly–my preference would be to find market mechanisms to invest capital in a variety of technologies, and keep politics out of it, or simply to put a steep price on carbon and let the chips fall where they may–I asked several of the CEOs why they had confidence that a centralized approach made sense.

Immelt noted that GE is in the health-care business as well, and said the National Institutes of Health has been very effective. That NIH spends about $30 billion a year, most of which supports research done at universities. “The NIH is a pretty good model,” he said. Partly because of work done at NIH, he said, the U.S. is the world’s leader in health care, at least when it comes to innovation and technology. The report notes that Gleevec, a cancer drug, came out of work done by an NIH-backed researcher. Presumably there are many more examples.

I also talked with John Doerr after the event. Naturally, being a venture capitalist who made his fortune from information technology (Kleiner funded Google, among others), he cited the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), where the Internet got its start, as an example of successful, government-backed R&D.

“So much of America’s prosperity can be traced back to those investments,” Doerr said. “ARPANET essentially created the discipline of computer science. ARPANET funded radar. ARPANET created the computer-assisted design industry.”

There’s no reason, he said, that the DOE can’t do as well. “The national labs are already doing some really good work,” he said. They just need more sustained support. Government loans, he said, can play a key role in bringing proven technology to scale.

One final note: When I saw the names of climate scientist Ken Caldeira and geoengineering expert David Keith listed on the AEIC’s “technical review committee,” I asked Gates whether he thought some  government funding should be used to research geoengineering. Gates has made small grants of his own to Caldeira and Keith to fund research into ways that humans can deliberately manipulate the climate to deal with the threat of global warming. (See Is Geoengineering Inevitable?)

While geoengineering isn’t mentioned in the report, Gates said it’s worth researching. “Fortunately,” he said, “we’re a long ways away from anyone would have to look at deploying” geoengineering technology. “But you’d want to be fully informed,” particularly if, as seems likely, other countries that fear climate change do their own geoengineering research.

There’s lots more at the American Energy Innovation Council website, including a model budget on how the $16 billion could eventually be spent–basic energy science ($2.6b), nuclear fission ($1.0b), nuclear fusion ($400 million), efficiency ($2.1b), renewables including solar, wind, bioenergy, geothermal and hydropower ($2.4b), fossil energy including clean coal ($1.3b), electricity transmission and distribution ($1.2b), as well as large-scale pilot and demonstration projects.

Said Chad Holliday: “We don’t see a better investment that our country can make in future generations.”

People will, of course, argue about the priorities. But isn’t it time that we get going?

How to cool the planet

Take a step back from the daily to-and-fro about climate change, and it’s hard to find any reason to cheer.

Copenhagen was pretty much a flop. The Republicans somehow captured a 41-vote majority in the U.S. Senate. Climate scientists are under attack. We continue to emit CO2 into the air at what should be an alarming pace, and many experts say we can no longer avoid significant warming during this century. If you are aware of evidence indicating that we are going to get a global treaty to effectively limit greenhouse gas emissions anytime soon, I’d  like to see it.

-1Which is why we need to think seriously about geoengineering.

Jeff Goodell, the author of a terrific new book on geoengineering called How to Cool the Planet: Geoengineering and the Audacious Quest to Fix the Earth’s Climate, puts it this way:

Barring some kind of social miracle or political miracle, we’re not going to be able to reduce emissions enough to hit the targets that climate scientists tell us that we need to avert the risk of dangerous climate change… This is really a hard thing, reinventing our energy infrastructure. So where does that lead us? One of places it leads us to is geoengineering.

If you haven’t paid attention to geoengineering, it’s time to start. The term refers techniques to deliberately manipulate the earth’s climate to counter the effects of man-made global warming. Technologies could include but are surely not limited to  solar radiation management (shooting particles into the stratosphere to block sunlight), cloud seeding (spraying droplets of seawater into the air to thicken clouds) and ocean fertilization (stimulating the growth of phytoplankton to suck CO2 from the air). Crazy, scary, fascinating stuff, as I’ve written here and here. [click to continue…]

Is geoengineering inevitable?

Geoengineering, says scientist David Keith, “is like chemotherapy. It’s something nobody should like.”

But if you can’t avoid cancer, chemotherapy may be your best option. And, if it becomes evident that the earth can’t avoid the catastrophic impacts of climate change, it is not merely possible that governments will turn to geoengineering.

Some people believe that it is all but certain.

Geoengineering, as you probably know, is the deliberate large-scale manipulation of the planet to counter global warming. It can take a number of forms, as the graphic below shows, some perhaps still to be discovered. Long a taboo subject, geoengineering is being talked about openly these days by scientists, environmentalists and policy thinkers.

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The National Academy of Sciences held a workshop on geoengineering in June. Influential books including SuperFreakonomics and Whole Earth Discipline, by longtime environmentalist Stewart Brand, argue that it’s time to take geoengineering seriously. A congressional subcommittee held its second hearing on geoengineering just last week.

Among those testifying was Keith, who directs the energy and environmental systems group at the University of Calgary and, interestingly, also leads a team of engineers who are developing a technology to capture CO2 from ambient air. I heard him speak a week ago during a six-hour workshop on geoengineering organized by the Environmental Defense Fund, a nonprofit known for its pragmatism. EDF invited me to attend, on the condition that I seek permission from the scientists before quoting them. [click to continue…]

Geoengineering: Time to get serious?

Imagine a fleet of 1,500 remote-controlled, wind-powered ships, sailing the world’s oceans, spewing salt water into the air to whiten clouds, so they block more of the sun and cool an overheating planet.

Or think of trillions of tiny mirrors, sent into orbit, to reflect the sun’s rays. Or artificial trees that suck a ton of carbon a day out of the atmosphere. Or iron filings, sprinkled on seas, to rapidly grow phytoplankton, which absorb CO2.

These emergency strategies for curbing global warming aren’t crazy schemes. Well, maybe they are crazy schemes. But serious people say we should start taking them seriously, as a last-ditch option to deal with the threat of catastrophic climate disruptions.

The latest to do so is David G. Victor, a professor of law at Stanford who directs a program on energy and sustainable development at the university. With four academic colleagues–Victor M. Granger, Jay Apt, John Steinbruner and Katherine Ricke–Victor has written an essay in Foreign Affairs called “The Geoengineering Option” that calls for more scientific research and policy debate about geoengineering.

I ask him by phone why he became interested in geoengineering which, by his own account, is on fringe of climate science and politics.

“You can’t help but look at the politics and the science of global warming today without becoming extremely pessimistic,” Victor says.

“Barely a month goes by without a new report saying that warming is happening faster,” he goes on. “It’s a really worrisome picture.”

But doesn’t the debate that’s beginning in Washington over climate-change regulation give him reason for hope?

“The Obama proposals are step in the right direction and they’re better than what we were doing before which was, roughly, nothing,” he replies. But as currently proposed, the cap-and-trade system to regulate greenhouse gases doesn’t go far enough to reduce the use of fossil fuels and promote renewable energy. Gasoline prices, for example, would rise an estimated 15 cents a gallon under the plan, not enough to matter.

And so, the argument goes, when measured against current efforts to mitigate climate change—which, in truth, require the top-to-bottom transformation of the global energy economy, despite a mostly-apathetic populace and over the objections of deeply entrenched industries—geoengineering doesn’t look so crazy.

It’s not just Victor and his colleagues who say we should reconsider geoengineering.. Last fall, Scientific American published a long analysis of the science and politics of geoengineering, with a focus on pumping sulfur dioxide into the stratosphere, as volcanoes do. Popular Mechanics described “Five Big Plans to Stop Global Warming,” which generated a lot of buzz on the web. Treehugger used the illustration below to consider the topic back in 2007.

Yet, as Victor and his colleagues point out in Foreign Affairs, there’s a scarcity of scientific research into the topic:

Despite years of speculation and vague talk, peer-reviewed research on geoengineering is remarkably scarce. Nearly the entire community of geoengineering scientists could fit comfortably in a single university seminar room, and the entire scientific literature on the subject could be read during the course of a transatlantic flight. Geoengineering continues to be considered a fringe topic.

Partly that’s because environmentalists have been loathe to talk about geoengineering, for fear that people will think there’s a magic bullet out there that will enable them to avoid hard choices about the costs of moving away from fossil fuels and towards for renewable power.

It’s also because we have come to understand the limits of science and engineering, thanks to such events as Chernobyl, the Exxon Valdez oil spill, the space shuttle Challenger disaster. Tinkering with the earth’s climate is no trivial matter. According to Victor and his co-authors, altering the earth’s albedo—that’s a term to describe the extent to which an object reflects light from the sun—would also affect

atmospheric circulation, rainfall and other aspects of the hydrologic cycle…Such changes could increase the risk of major droughts in some regions and have a major impact on agriculture and the supply of fresh water.

“This scares the hell out of people, and for good reason,” Victor says.

The thing is, any nation fearing the impact of climate change could, in theory, begin engineering the planet without consulting the rest of us. Who’s going to stop it? The UN? Even in the U.S., it’s not clear who’s responsible for geoengineering. NASA? The Pentagon? The National Science Foundation? Ira Flatow?

“It doesn’t logically fit in any one place in government,” Victor says.

Some companies think there are profits to be made from geoengineering. Last year, I wrote a column (“Dumping Iron”) about Climos, a company that hopes to deploy ocean iron fertilization to generate revenues from carbon offsets.

What’s needed, Victor tells me, is government-backed research carried out by academic scientists. “The science needs to be done in a way that is open and transparent and involves serious review and scrutiny,” he says. At the same time, governments need to begin talking about how to manage and regulate geoengineering. As Victor and his co-authors put it:

“Politicians must take geoengineering seriously because it is cheap, easy and takes only one government with sufficient hubris or desperation to set it into motion.”