The Atomic Show #122 – Steven Chu – Confirmation Hearings for Secretary of Energy
Steven Chu is a well respected scientist, national laboratory manager and biofuels focused researcher. He has been nominated by President-elect Barack Obama to be the Secretary of Energy, a position that puts him in charge of approximately 30,000 people and an annual budget of approximately $25 billion. As Dr. Chu stated in his testimony, the US Department of Energy employs more physical scientists than any other single organization in the country.
On this episode of The Atomic Show, I have cut in audio clips from the confirmation hearing that the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee held to hear testimony from Dr. Chu about his priorities, how he would manage his department and the challenges that it faces in addressing climate change, energy security, and environmental restoration for its sprawling collection of research and development facilities.
I have a great deal of respect for Dr. Chu and for his ordered way of thinking, but I do have some concerns that he is too focused on a scientific approach to problem solving rather than an engineering one.
Let me explain. Though many people mentally link science and engineering, there is a fundamental difference in philosophy between the practitioners of the two important fields. Scientists like to study and find answers to questions that no one has yet solved. Engineers like to design and make things using the knowledge they can find in textbooks, graphs and reference material along with the practical knowledge that they can gain from actually engaging in their craft.
They know that they do not have a perfect knowledge of the universe, but they also know that their knowledge is good enough to create many amazing things. If they find a hard roadblock during the creation process, they are reasonably confident that they will find a way around the obstacle. Both science and engineering are important disciplines, but there is a time and a place for each to have primary influence. When it comes to addressing the world’s energy, climate and water supply challenges, there is no doubt that it is mainly an engineering problem, not a science project.
Unfortunately, Dr. Chu’s approach to the problem seems more influenced by his scientific bent than informed by a strong understanding of what is possible TODAY. His comments during the hearing lead me to believe that he does not yet have a good grasp of the approach needed to empower the people who ALREADY know how to reduce pollution, make energy available and affordable, and who know how to use that energy to reduce supply challenges for other important commodities like water and food.
As you listen to the Senators’ questions, Dr. Chu’s response and my interspersed commentary, you will realize just why I have more concerns about the department’s priorities and initial actions than does the Nuclear Energy Institute. There are a number of things we could be doing now, that do not necessarily involve a great deal of expenditure by the American taxpayers to simply encourage and enable proceeding with due haste to building and operating a new generation of devices that use fission instead of chemical combustion to provide an almost unlimited amount of emission free, reliable, energy.
Fission is not just an option, it is an imperative that has the potential to dramatically improve the lives of everyone on the planet – except those who have been unable to read the handwriting on the wall and continue to depend on selling fossil fuels at elevated prices to enable them to remain powerful and secure.
I know this is a minority view that would not be popular in the Senate committee with all of its competing interests – that is why I am a writer, a podcaster and an analyst, not a politician.
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I haven’t listened yet, but will on my commute tomorrow.
The bi-weekly newspaper where I work gave Mr. Chu accolades. Wise, politically, I suppose, seeing as he will be our pseudo-boss upon confirmation. The newspaper is available online to the public with about a month delay. I will give you the link when it is available. If you would like to read it sooner, let me know.
Regarding the month delay, there was an article in December about “right-sized reactors” and our angle among research thereto that made me immediately think of you. It’s at:
(Scroll down) with a PDF of the entire issue and unabridged article at the top of the page.
Good show. Some interesting points about coal and carbon capture & sequestration (CCS):
Jim Hansen is totally apoplectic about coal, in an interview with the UK Guardian Hansen insists Obama has only 4 years to save the earth and a moratorium on new coal construction should be imposed — unlikely particularly in this economic environment. I wonder if the media is going to continue to follow Hansen’s opinions — or even the climate change issue in general — with the deference it has shown to date if he should turn on Obama once he comes to realize this.
The establishment enviro community has already taken a dim view of CCS as an obvious “green washing” sham, and is running a national ad campaign against so called “clean coal”. I wonder how far the CCS farce will go before the environmentalist community raises the spectre of the 12 August 1986 Lake Nayos tragedy in which 1700 Africans were asphyxiated by the subterranean release of heavier-than-air CO2 — far deadlier than Chernobyl and that region of Cameroon remains more dangerous to this day than the entombed RBMK reactor, its “exclusion zone”, or the remaining operative RBMKs for that matter.
As a technological concept CCS is probably about as far from deployment ready as nuclear fusion but not nearly as practical. As a ploy however CCS is useful for the industry and the politicians who seeking an excuse for supporting them (similar to early Bush adm efforts to put off more rigorous CAFE standards by pointing to the hydrogen car of the future). All that being said so-called “CCS ready” IGCC plants do make sense and offer the possibility to use a separated CO2 stream as feedstock for methanol production, there is even a Nobel laureate George Olah out promoting the concept. Curious why a politician hasn’t hit on that one yet, large scale M-85 use could obviously go a long way to automotive fuel independence — oh yeah ethanol (E-85), I forgot.
What was the Bush admin blueprint “tome” on reprocessing that Wyden referred to? Wyden from Oregon is obviously playing to home state concern over the Hanford weapons complex PUREX clean up issue that has been going on for decades.
Re: improving energy efficiency will only lead to increased energy consumption, as Rod said on this show.
Obviously, there is something to this point, but they’ve done a lot in California to mandate energy efficiency, which has led to a reduction in per capita energy use. When they forced manufacturers to make more energy efficient refrigerators, who went out and bought four more refrigerators because the new ones used one quarter the energy as before? How did Europe end up living in very similar ways to people in the US by using one half the energy per capita?
Regarding carbon capture and sequestration (CCS): The big coal companies in the US have poisoned the air in more ways than one. Their all talk and no build campaign they called “clean coal” caused the backlash spearheaded by Al Gore, i.e. “there is no such thing as clean coal”.
What can be said is there is no full scale commercial plant that uses coal to generate electricity that also captures its CO2 and sequesters it. The idea that CCS is as far from reality as nuclear fusion is preposterous. The last time I checked, last fall, the largest existing pilot CCS generating station (Vattenfall’s Schwarze Pumpe in Germany) had a greater actual output of electricity than the largest solar thermal plant then existing, even though the mainstream enviro groups all tout solar thermal as the future and CCS as nonexistent.
Where is the nuclear fusion pilot plant?
The idea that it will be difficult to store CO2 underground doesn’t make a lot of sense. Consider how it is that oil reservoirs exist. Rock formations had to exist that oil under pressure could not escape from for millions of years in order for humans to find the oil in the first place. These places are suitable and are to some extent being used now to store CO2. There are many many other suitable formations.
Experts do not see a great problem, except, as is the case with nuclear power, if people decide that irrelevant issues such as an overblown concern with “safety” such as 28 thousand picocuries of radiation coming from tritium, or in this case the Lake Nyos tragedy. Even Al Gore in his new book Our Choice has written that the Lake Nyos incident is taken by experts in this field to be irrelevant to CCS discussion.
It will come down to cost. Chu has said he believes CCS will add 20% to the cost of wholesale coal power. What Chu advocates when not in front of a senate committee is a carbon tax of around $100 a tonne of CO2 emitted. MIT stated in their update to The Future of Nuclear Power that even a $25 a tonne carbon tax would make new nuclear cost competitive with new coal.
All technologies competing if CO2 emissions were priced at that level would tend to drastically lower CO2 emissions to the atmosphere, Chu believes. Because storage areas have to be much greater in size than the original oil reservoirs, because liquid CO2 occupies far greater volume than the coal or oil that was burned to create it, Chu believes the main problem is finding enough of these areas to accommodate it all. The NAS has discovered large sites offshore US on both coasts that look very promising.
Further information on CCS can be found in the IPCC Special Report on Carbon Capture and Sequestration, and the book “Sustainable Fossil Fuels”, by Mark Jaccard.
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