Energy that is Safe, Secure and Affordable
Our growing dependence on energy from imported oil and natural gas has been an urgent but neglected problem for decades. Growing demand from around the world is driving oil prices to sustained high levels, and global warming is one of the most serious environmental challenges facing us today. America needs an adequate response to the energy challenges of the future.
Directing energy policy is a complex and broad subject, requiring substantial economic and technological input, as it even seemingly minor policy shifts have significant impacts on our economy and environment. As a scientist and businessman, Bill Foster has the knowledge and experience we need to face the environmental and energy challenges of the 21st Century.
We must aggressively combat climate change, reduce our dependence on foreign oil and promote cleaner and more economical sources of energy. In the near term we must do what we can, within the bounds of what is economically sensible and technically feasible, to begin making progress in these efforts. In the longer term, we must develop new energy technologies that have the best chance of succeeding in the market place. During the last decade, we spent more money on the War in Iraq than we have invested in energy research and development throughout the entire history of our country.
A Comprehensive Energy Strategy
Bill Foster’s principles for a comprehensive energy policy:
- Competently manage our existing fossil fuels programs, so that they serve the needs of our country rather than the special interests of international oil companies.
- Immediately perform all energy efficiency upgrades that pay for themselves over the lifetime of the equipment – and that are a net plus for our economy.
- Expand federal R&D programs on transformative pre-commercial energy research.
- Incentivize public-private partnerships for technologies approaching commercialization, after subjecting them to rigorous economic analysis to map out their path to success without subsidies.
With these principles, competently executed, we can have an energy program that is good for our economy in both the short term and long term.
Bill’s position on global warming rests on three principles:
- The observed global warming is dangerous and real.
- At least half of the observed global warming is human-caused, so action is imperative.
- It is our responsibility to fix this problem in the way that does the least damage our economic growth in the U.S. and throughout the world.
It is crucial that we get a more accurate scientific picture of the situation as soon as possible. If the global warming problem must be corrected within 10 years, this will be much more expensive to “fix” than if we have 70 years to correct the problem. Thus a high priority should be given to measuring and computer-modeling of the Earth’s climate, so that the effects of corrective actions – as well as the price of inaction – can be properly understood.
Management of Existing Fossil Energy Programs
The high price of oil provides more than adequate incentive for near-term exploration and drilling. In addition, recent technological developments in hydro-fracturing underground formations have dramatically increased U.S. reserves of natural gas. This will encourage a shift to natural gas over the next few decades, which will have both economic and environmental benefits as long as the drilling is done in an environmentally responsible manner. Ultimately, however, we cannot drill our way out of the energy crisis.
Thus it is time to invest in clean energy alternatives like solar power, deep-drilled geothermal power, wind energy, and sensible biofuels. The recently established “ARPA-E” program – modeled on the DARPA program that produced the Internet and the GPS system – is already yielding promising new technologies such as grid-scale batteries that allow intermittent energy sources such as wind and solar to be used efficiently with variable consumer loads.
Maintaining a skilled workforce and knowledge base: With the coming retirement of the Baby Boomer and “Sputnik” generation, energy sector professionals will be in increasingly short supply. The lack of competent technical management and regulation appears to have been a significant factor in the BP Deepwater Horizon disaster. We must make education and training in technical areas of energy production and regulation a national priority, and we must have a plan to address any shortfall in the government and private sector.
Energy Efficiency and Investments that Strengthen our Economy
What does an optimal energy policy look like? First, there are a large number of energy efficiency improvements and equipment upgrades that reduce Carbon pollution and pay for themselves over the lifetime of the equipment – in economists’ terms, have “Positive Net Present Value” (NPV). Many of these have not been done in the free market for a variety of reasons: so-called “market failures,” lack of capital, or simply lack of industry knowledge about best practices.
An example where government can play a role might be a family-owned long-haul trucking operation, stuck paying high fuel costs for an inefficient rig because they do not have the resources or credit to buy a modern, more efficient rig – even though a new, fuel-efficient rig would save money over time. A properly designed government loan guarantee program can help solve this kind of problem.
Opportunities for efficiency improvements have been studied by both the McKinsey & Co. as well as the National Academy of Sciences, with similar results. The bottom line is that large classes of these investments are good for both the economy and the environment. McKinsey estimates that with an investment of 500 billion dollars over the next 10 years, we can save our economy 1.2 Trillion dollars. This savings is more than enough to support a historically overdue increase in energy research, while still not damaging our economy. This is exactly the approach that Bill Foster supports.
The chart below provides an economic analysis of the cost of Carbon pollution abatement with various technologies. Items at left have negative cost, i.e. they are good for our economy.
Bill Foster’s TRACE Act (H.R. 5423)
One of the most vexing elements in formulating a cost-effective energy policy is the lack of accurate and up-to date information on the real world cost of producing energy with various technologies. Energy costs vary with time, technology, commodity pricing, direct and indirect subsidies, and capital costs. Too often, flawed energy policy is the result of “apples-to-oranges” comparisons of energy costs of new vs. existing technologies, or the uncritical use of proponents’ speculative cost estimates. Even after energy technologies become established in the marketplace, energy costs fluctuate significantly due to changes in commodity prices.
To help solve this problem Bill Foster introduced H.R. 5423, the TRACE Act, to restart and expand programs at the Department of Energy / Energy Information Authority to collect and disseminate the actual, present-day capital and operating costs of energy production with various technologies, as well as maintaining realistic forward projections of costs for energy production using a common set of commodity price scenarios. It also authorizes the collection of GHG emission data for current and projected technologies.
This bipartisan bill was cosponsored by two Republican scientists, physicist Vernon Ehlers (MI-3) and chemist Roscoe Bartlett (MD-6), as well as Bart Gordon, chair of the House Committee on Science and Technology.
Allocation and Management of US Energy Resources and Research, and Development
Our limited dollars for basic energy research, technology development, and commercial deployment must be invested wisely. Continuously evolving technological and political developments should cause us to rebalance our investments in emerging technologies. The ARRA act and other investments Bill voted for provided a large increase in energy R&D that is prioritized using both science and economics. Here are some representative examples where Bill believes increased effort has been warranted:
- Carbon Capture and Sequestration: Technologies for the capture and long-term storage of carbon dioxide emissions will be crucial if either: a) we continue to burn our enormous supplies of coal, or: b) we cannot convince other countries to stop burning large amounts of coal and gas. If we continue to burn coal, we need a transition to more climate-friendly coal technologies that capture exhaust CO2 directly. In this case, an economically-sound worldwide incentive program which advances coal systems with carbon capture and storage needs to be developed. One promising example of this type of research is the Calera process to turn coal smoke + sea water into cement and aggregate.
- Substation-Scale Energy Storage: One promising example of developments funded by the ARPA-E program that Bill voted for was the development of grid-scale batteries that leapfrog existing battery technology in energy density, cost, efficiency and battery lifetime. These will help solve two of the most challenging problems in using renewable power in our energy grid: the intermittency of sources like wind and solar power, and the transient loading from consumer demand.
- Geothermal Energy Production: The potential for deep-drilled geothermal energy extraction is an exciting prospect that is scientifically valid but requires demonstration of engineering and economic feasibility. In principle, this could provide many thousands of years’ of energy supply for the entire U.S.
- Hybrid Thermo-Solar Energy with Storage: This uses concentrated solar power to heat molten salts which are then stored in tanks for days to weeks before being used to boil water to run a steam turbine. In the rare cases that the tank runs out, a low cost natural gas burner can temporarily substitute. In other variants, solar energy preheating is used to boost the output of a gas turbine. This is an area where the basic technology exists and public-private partnerships are required to demonstrate the economics.
Responsible Development of Biofuels
The success of farmers and other agricultural related industries is greatly affected by many factors, including the actions of those helping to guide our nation’s energy and agricultural policies. Unfortunately, Congress has been erratic at best in its enthusiasm for biofuels. One of the main causes is the uncertainty and misinformation about the carbon footprint of corn-based ethanol, arising from the use of studies based on decade-old ethanol plant design, old corn yield and fertilizer usage data, and lack of analysis of the value of co-products such as DDG’s. Modern analyses of current practice indicate that corn-based ethanol emits less than half the greenhouse gasses of gasoline. When one factors in the projected doubling of corn yields over the next 20 years due to improved genetic traits, corn-based ethanol will be a strong economic competitor even to future cellulosic ethanol technology. That is why Bill Foster supports extending the Volumetric Ethanol Excise Tax Credit (VEETC) and biodiesel tax credit, along with increasing the ethanol blend wall for cars from 10% to 15%. Responsibly increasing our use of biofuels will create new jobs, lessen our dependence on foreign oil, and help protect our environment.
As a scientist, Bill Foster believes nuclear power can be made safe, and has been made safe in the United States. Waste disposal remains a technically possible but politically unsolved problem that is finally being responsibly addressed by the DOE Blue Ribbon Commission on America's Nuclear Future appointed by President Obama and Energy Secretary Chu.
What is missing in the nuclear debate is an accurate understanding of the costs of nuclear compared to other low-carbon energy sources. In the short term, it appears that low natural gas prices from hydro-fracturing technology may make the capital investment in new nuclear plants hard to justify – even at sites where the licensing and environmental permitting is already in place. In the longer term, we should press ahead with advanced technologies such as inherently safe High-Temperature Gas Reactors with high Carnot efficiency and noncorrosive coolants, small modular reactor designs, inertial and magnetically confined fusion energy, and accelerator-driven Thorium cycle energy production. The balance of effort in these areas should be continually refined based on best available knowledge technical progress and projected economic feasibility.