Inventions dying on the vine of a decaying infrastructure and energy policy

This week, a U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) committee issued 11 recommendations to the U.S. government on how to successfully market its renewable energy technologies to the world. The panel has set a goal to DOUBLE renewable energy exports in the next five years. Recommendation No. 10? Encourage foreign investment.  Hmm.

Edison in his lab

Call it being in favor of the Smart Grid, if you want. How can the United States foster green energy innovation when its own communities can’t effectively use what gets invented. Thomas Edison would have been frustrated.

The scandal surrounding the Solyndra default is still being investigated, but the general opinion is it had more to do with a faulty business model than anything. I wonder who reviews those things in the government.  Perhaps that’s the problem.

Sir Richard Branson

Private industry keeps looking for opportunities within the gaps, but without a comprehensive energy policy that rests on infrastructure modernization, progress moves at a snail’s pace. Long-term and flexible infrastructure + governmental support = jobs. As Richard Branson is taking up the reins in the post-NASA human space race, so, too, did T. Boone Pickens, the Warren Buffet of energy. Both envisioned filling a gap and profiting.  But one was in space. The other was on terra firma, filled with decaying infrastructure, global market variables, and a culture addicted to oil.

Breaking wind
How excited we all were when Mr. Pickens announced his plan a few years ago to wean our country off foreign oil. But with global markets and a lack of modernized utility infrastructure (to actually CARRY said energy somewhere else), Mr. Pickens may have been sunk before even breaking ground for his wind project.

July 8, 2008
Pickens Building World’s Largest Wind Farm
“T. Boone Pickens is warning Americans to use more natural gas and to start using wind power because “the price of oil is never coming back down.”(ABC News)
But then, two years later:
Jan 13, 2010
T. Boone Pickens cuts order for wind turbines, puts Panhandle wind farm on hold
“The energy investor, who made wind power a key part of his plan to wean Americans off foreign oil, said Tuesday he will now take delivery of 300 turbines, which he will use for wind farms in Canada and Minnesota.”(Dallas Morning News)

At least some fine folks in Minnesota may get jobs. Pickens was later quoted as saying the prices for natural gas didn’t come down far or fast enough to make wind profitable. Since natural gas is his forte, one could say he broke even. And, he did it alone. He’s one of a very few who is able.

Sure, we can bail you out
The federal government, via the DOE Loan Programs Office backed a loan of more than $530 million to now-defunct Solyndra, the solar company that went bust about a year after President Obama publicly touted the company as the poster child of America’s commitment to innovation and job creation. Now, the FBI is investigating Solyndra.

The loan program, created in 2005, was designed to eliminate United States’ reliance on foreign sources of energy.  The government is backing and has worked with more than 42 private companies to the liability tune of $30 billion. But much of these are just loan guarantees, not seed or supporting funding for companies to carry out their work. Come Sept. 30, federal monies for the DOE loan program are scheduled to double.

“Under the program, the government doesn’t hand out any money unless the companies fail. The Energy Department essentially acts as a sponsor, putting the government on the hook for the loan should the company default.” (CNN Money)
The fact the federal government is backing loans to private renewable energy companies is laudable. But there still don’t seem to be enough places to implement inventions once they become commercialized.  Perhaps the government should create a division surrounding relevant offices of the Department of Transportation, DOE, mayors associations, governors, planners, etc.   Place it in the Department of Homeland Security, why don’t we. Their mission? To plan a foundation upon which we can utilize, grow, and live with the inventions for which our country and economy is pleading.

Truth is, CO2 storage is still emerging. Are we missing the big picture? And opportunities?

We know that “four out of five dentists” agree that CO2 tops the list of global warming causes and that the leading culprit is, well, us. Proponents of “clean coal” trumpet carbon capture and sequestration as a panacea; but it may be this line of thinking that has detractors and environmentalists up in arms.  CO2 storage and sequestration is still an emerging technology and is still hyped by governments and industry stakeholders as the big solution. But, there are several notable and immediate obstacles to overcome before we can help the environment and save the proverbial whales.

With CO2 storage, you need what some say are a perfect set of geological criteria: You need a limestone bed or some other natural material that will serve as a wall; you need the space to be large enough to make the holding area practical; and you need enough of these spaces around the world to hold all the CO2 being pumped into the atmosphere. Yes, there are studies looking at so-called deep saline aquifers, which supporters say hold vast potential and could serve as a good tool for mitigation.

But as we look, CO2 continues to rise up into the atmosphere. If this option is to be taken seriously, we must quickly identify and use these aquifers, compatible carbon sinks, depleted oilfields or other places capable of permanently and safely housing large volumes of CO2. At an off shore undersea aquifer off Norway, for example, Statoil buries carbon dioxide extracted from natural gas to reduce its tax liability with the Norwegian government.   But offshore storage, while effective, comes at a heavy cost both in terms of capital and energy efficiency. Last year, I spoke with an executive in Rotterdam from Royal Dutch Shell who told me their northern European operations generate 100 million tons of CO2 yearly.


But all this is likely just academic for now. Does the planet actually have enough space to store all this CO2? According to, a non-profit organization advocating the reduction of greenhouse gases, 9.28 billion metric tons of CO2 were emitted into the atmosphere by fossil fuel sources, cement plants and land use-change activities worldwide in 2009.  But we’re not innocent either. The average American household spews 35 tons of CO2 into the air every year.  Economic data suggests that those figures aren’t going down.

“Coal is now the largest fossil-fuel source of CO2 emissions. About 92% of the growth in coal emissions for the period 2007-2009 resulted from increased coal use in China and India. If economic growth proceeds as expected, global fossil fuel emissions are projected to increase by more than 3% in 2010,” according to the report.

How can science help? Perhaps with increased government support and public/private relationship brokering.  Any working energy policy must be executed across platforms to be effective. Companies, R&D firms and academia should be encouraged to share new, tested and available technologies in areas such as flue gas cleanup, hydrogen generation and renewable energy tools, as well as waste-to-energy solutions in landfill gas to methane generation.

CO2 capture will certainly have its place in the new energy economy.  But cooperation across industries (and borders) is the only answer and is likely the only way to save those whales.