Increase R&D, don’t cut it

BAU trajectory
BAU trajectory. Renewables is primarily hydro; I’m guessing the tiny increase in renewables represents an enormous percentage increase in wind and solar.

According to the NY Times, FutureGen is kaput:

The Energy Department said it would pay for the gas-capturing technology, but industry would have to build and pay for the commercial plants that use the technology. Plans for the experimental plant were scratched.

Top Energy Department officials said the change [to another technology a few years from now] would save taxpayers money, generate more electricity and capture more than twice as much carbon dioxide.

But independent energy experts largely criticized the move, saying it would require two to four more years for new designs, plans and approvals, let alone budget tussles and eventual construction.

From the Toronto Star, Climate Neros fiddle while Rome burns:

How many radio or television debates have shown an environmentalist pointing out the devastating effects of oil sands and power production in Alberta, only to have industry officials tout concepts like “clean coal” or “carbon capture and sequestration” – as if the solution is here and the problem is being overcome as they speak?

The average listener is likely to walk away thinking that action is being taken and that there’s no need for concern. Problem is, we keep waiting and waiting and nothing really happens.

Professor David Keith, a chemical engineer and director of the University of Calgary’s energy and environmental systems group, warned at an oil sands conference last week that there’s tremendous uncertainty around the viability of these large projects. This reality, he pointed out, is overshadowed by all the hype.

“We’re not actually doing very much,” he said. “We’re in a world where there’s an enormous amount of talk but very little actual action.”

As Keith pointed out, there’s been no shortage of press releases. According to Emerging Energy Research of Cambridge, Mass., more than 20 major carbon-capture power generation projects were announced around the world last year – most of them proposed in Canada, the United States and Australia.

Not one, said Keith, is certain to move forward….

Keith, during his conference talk, said it’s one thing to capture carbon and another to store it. On the latter, he said there are just three large-scale projects underway worldwide and only in areas of the world where a carbon tax exists.

Oil companies and utilities are reluctant to move forward for several reasons. For one, there’s been a lack of clear policy direction in North America. Second, natural gas has stayed cheaper than expected so there’s been no urgency to lean on coal. Another major reason, cited by Keith, is that project costs are skyrocketing.

There’s a shortage of labour. Skilled workers and engineers are being lost to retirement faster than new workers are entering the market. The demand for resources, such as steel, continues to rise as countries such as China and other industries, such as nuclear, rush to lock up contracts.

“Nobody, to my knowledge, really knows whether this enormous run-up in capital costs is a bubble or not,” said Keith….

The largest carbon capture system in testing is about 2 megawatts – versus about 500 megawatts for a small coal plant. That has to be scaled up 250 times to prove it’s ready for prime time. Meanwhile, the largest underground storage project is injecting only 1 million tonnes of CO{-2} per year, compared to 6 million required for an average-size coal plant.

Let’s put this into perspective: in the U.S. alone there are nearly 1,500 coal-electricity generators in operation that are capable of providing all the power needs of Ontario 13 times over. More than 100 new plants are on the drawing board.

And China? What’s happening there is just plain scary. In 2006 alone, the Chinese added 100,000 megawatts of coal power to its grid – nearly four times all the power generation in Ontario. The rate of construction is expected to accelerate, not slow down.

A warming Earth
A warming Earth (picture from NASA)

We need to increase research spending. Past president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, John Holdren, was part of a research panel looking at current spending:

The White House points to what it says is spending of almost US$3 billion (€2.3 billion) a year on energy-technology research and development as its major contribution to combatting climate change. But Holdren said other calculations put spending at under $2 billion (€1.5 billion), and it’s “far from proportionate to either the size of the challenge or the size of the opportunities.”

Tuesday’s report [Confronting Climate Change: Avoiding the Unmanageable and Managing the Unavoidable] said such research budgets worldwide are badly underfunded, and require a tripling or quadrupling, to US$45 billion (€34.2 billion) or US$60 billion (€45.6 billion) a year.

Billions more should go toward work on cellulose as a biofuel, overcoming the problems of nuclear energy, reducing solar electricity’s cost, and developing other cleaner energy sources, Holdren said. He said intensified research is particularly needed for carbon capture and sequestration — technology to capture carbon dioxide in power-plant emissions and store it underground.

How much would a $10 billion dollar research tax cost if paid for only by electricity consumption? US electricity use was 4 million million kWh in 2006, so $10 billion would be 1/4 cent/kWh, presumably more for coal and natural gas kWh.

How much would a $10 billion dollar research tax cost if paid for only by gasoline consumption? In 2006, gasoline plus aviation gasoline plus kerosene-type jet fuel came to about 4 billion barrels in the US, about 160 billion gallons. So $10 billion would be a 6 cent tax/gallon.

It looks like we can afford to more than triple our research dollar. We certainly can’t afford not to.

Changing precipitation
Changing precipitation

6 Responses to “Increase R&D, don’t cut it”

  1. As a historian, one thing that I’ve noticed is that most energy research R&D money has been wasted historically. Look at all the clunkers that got government funding: thermionics for coal, synfuels, and so on. In fact, nuclear power is the one big exception where government R&D funding in an exotic energy technology actually translated into a viable product. Another problem is that many/most of those advocating increased investment in energy R&D want the money to be devoted to technologies that, frankly put, aren’t very promising. It wont matter at all if R&D funding is increased if it’s all spent chasing rainbows.

  2. Karen Street says:

    Thanks for your comment; it is true that some R&D probably was initially badly targeted. Certainly many in the policy community find the amount of subsidies for development of corn-based ethanol overly large compared to their contribution. When you say wasted, I’m not sure what you mean. I don’t know anything about thermionics for coal, or how much has been spent on it, but I expect that synfuels will actually be used. I expect solar research dollars spent today to reduce costs of electricity tomorrow, and the costs of dealing with climate change.

    There are mechanisms to determine if R&D make sense–every source I’ve seen out of the (academic) policy community indicates we need more money spent on a range of solutions, from nuclear to coal to solar to geothermal, eg, this from InterAcademy Council. The amount we spend today, here and around the world, is too little. Coal with carbon capture and storage, for plants built from scratch and for retrofitting coal plants, needs subsidies and needs them today. This is in part because the US is replacing old energy infrastructure, because much of the developing world is increasing use of energy rapidly, because Germany is building nuclear-free electricity plants as fast as it can: we will be stuck with mistakes for a long time.

    To see where US R&D fits into energy subsidies, from 1950 on, see Energy Incentives.

  3. Rod Adams says:


    I have to agree with Sovietologist – most money spent by the government on big research projects is wasted – as in lost forever.

    It is not surprising that academics believe that more research money is needed – they are, after all, the people who receive much of that money. It is almost a required part of every academic presentation to have a conclusion that identifies opportunities for more research.

    Don’t get me wrong – there is a certain amount of research that produces wonderful results, but I believe that government functionaries are not very good at recognizing where to put the money. Our processes also reward people with connections, large companies that promise huge numbers of new jobs, and people who have spent a long time learning the intricacies of government grant writing rather than energy production technology.

    If I could change one law that would have the most effect, I would seek to reduce the upfront license review fees charged to developers of new nuclear plant designs. If I was given a second wish, I would try to modify the Atomic Energy Act to give the Nuclear Regulatory Commission a role that is less legalistically adversarial and more technically focused on making nuclear fission electricity safe but more readily accessible.

    Those changes would not really cost the taxpayers anything – instead they would unleash a huge wave of private investment in generation technology that has a 50 year track record of reliability, safety and carbon free operation.

  4. Karen Street says:

    You both have a sense that much of our energy research dollar is being wasted. While some individual researchers are likely to promote projects that don’t do much good, it is my experience that the major reports pick and choose among the projects: some that deserve more money, and some that deserve less. The choices of those who dole out the funds, however, do not overlap completely with those who are most knowledgeable. On the average, the major policy people appear to think that the majority of projects are useful, that there aren’t enough of them, and that many are inadequately funded, also that projects chosen by legislators don’t do as well on average as those chosen by the science and policy communities. That does not mean that those who are most knowledgeable call it correctly 100% of the time, but that they do a better job of figuring out what needs funding than other groups do.

    That said, the amount of money is still insufficient, by a factor of 3 or more, according to people at the top of policy, such as John Holdren.

    Rod, don’t you think that the NRC makes the nuclear power industry safer, and the rest of us feel safer about it, with its attention to detail, and its willingness to reward early reporting of problems and penalize heavily failure to report problems? The biggest problem the nuclear industry has is public perception, and NRC’s stance is reassuring. I would prefer that those who monitor the coal and natural gas and etc industries would be equally diligent.

  5. Rod Adams says:


    I think that the NRC does a very good job with the task that it is assigned. I just wish that Congress would include in their charter some consideration for the fact that NOT generating adequate amounts of power overall can be far more dangerous than the very negligible effects of most of the incidents that capture the public attention with regard to nuclear.

    Based on the current legal directives, many people in the industry can envision a situation where a TMI type accident could result in an order to shut down all operating reactors instead of implementing additional safety procedures or special monitoring. That would be exceedingly dangerous in certain weather situations.

    I also think that the NRC need to play a bigger role in helping to educate the public – I am not talking about promotion, but true education to help the public understand better what the risk versus benefits of nuclear power. Finally, I think that the the NRC needs to be able to be as aggressive with the anti’s as it is with the industry – sometimes the real answer to a complaint is that it is completely frivolous.

    The level of cost imposed by the current method of regulation is difficult to estimate, but it is certainly a huge factor in why we are burning nearly 2 times as much coal in the US now as we were 30 years ago. Aggressive, zero defect regulation of nuclear power might make some people who know little about the topic sleep better, but it is killing the planet.

  6. Commenting from Canada, I very much agree with Rod Adams. We have a regulated nuclear power industry too. People think that the regulators are nuclear science experts who are making the country safer through their work. Sadly, this is just not the case. What these regulators have accomplished is increased costs for nuclear power, delays concerning the introduction of improved technology, bureaucratic constraints that make it impossible for small nuclear plants to be deployed, and a constant climate of fear that greatly exaggerates the consequences of nuclear processes because this fear enhances the status of the regulators. The emperor has no clothes on at all if anyone dares to look. Recently some aspects of this con game made it into the press here in Canada when the regulator was willing to shut down cancer diagnostic medicine throughout North America because a backup for a backup system (designed for a accident scenario that will just never happen) was not connected to a small, special purpose reactor. The full extent of this story will never be told, but it points out the folly of placing too much reliance on a regulating body that can easily lose its way. A real shake-up is needed concerning the regulation processes used for the nuclear power industry world wide. Otherwise, we are going to have to live in a very hot place without the full benefit of nuclear power.