The topic of the discussion: Could a wiser government science policy in the area of energy research help reduce the danger from militant Islam and terrorism? The public debate about what to do about terrorists from the Middle East rarely addresses a fundamental point: if we had a substitute for fossil fuels that cost less than fossil fuels then the demand for fossil fuels would plummet and the various governments and private groups in the Middle East that directly or indirectly provide the funding for terrorism would have very little money to do so.
The problem we have is not with just the direct funding of terrorist organizations. The spread of militant Islamist religious ideology creates the conditions in which terrorist organizations can recruit, raise funds, and operate. The money which the Saudi government and other Middle Eastern sources provide to fund madrassah schools produces generations of youths brainwashed in a fundamentalist variety of Islam which is hostile to the West. Saudi and other Persian Gulf sources fund the export of Wahhabi Islam to other Muslim countries, and to mosques in the United States, Europe, and other parts of the world.
To radically reduce the revenue from Middle Eastern oil sales requires more than just the reduction of US demand for oil. To replace fossil fuels worldwide (the US uses 26% worldwide oil production and 25% of total world energy production in all forms) a new technology must produce energy that is cheaper than fossil fuels. While a single nation might conceivably gradually restrict and eventually ban the use of fossil fuels it is very unlikely that many nations will do this. Therefore a competing technology that costs more just isn't going to get very far. A replacement technology really has to be cheaper if it is to reduce and eventually put an end to the purchase of Middle Eastern oil.
Some oil fields in the Middle East have oil that is so easily reachable that they have production costs of just a few dollars per barrel. This is far below current and likely market prices for many years to come. Therefore to totally eliminate the use of oil requires the alternative to be far cheaper than current market prices for oil. But, on the bright side, an oil replacement that was the equivalent of, say, $10 per barrel oil would greatly reduce the amount of revenue flowing to the Middle East because it would put an upper limit on the price of oil that would be far lower than would otherwise be the case. Since the regimes in the Middle East have fixed costs for operating themselves and can spend only surplus money on funding madrassahs and exporting Wahhabism a competing energy technology that caused a reduction in the price of oil would dramatically reduce their more problematic uses of oil revenue.
The development of fossil fuel replacements which are lower in cost than oil would of course have numerous benefits beyond reducing the risk from terrorism. Here are some of them:
Before we get into the current US government expenditures on energy research it is valuable to get a sense of how much the United States currently spends importing oil. We currently import 11 million barrels of oil per day.
According to the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), the United States imports 58 percent of its oil - or over 11 million barrels per day (with total consumption approaching 20 million barrels per day). The reliance on imports is necessary and carries benefits as well as some risks.
Oil prices fluctuate quite a bit. See here and here for historical oil pricing data. But let us suppose, for the sake of argument, that oil prices will decline to about $20/barrel on average in the coming years as a result of Iraqi oil fields coming back on line. Well, at that price we will spend $220 million dollars per day to import oil. That is over $80 billion per year. As US demand rises and output of US fields declines the amount of oil imported by the US can be expected to rise. Over the period of the next decade alone it is quite plausible that the United States will spend over $1 trillion dollars to import oil.
Total energy consumption is expected to increase more rapidly than domestic energy production through 2025. As a result, net imports of energy are projected to meet a growing share of energy demand (Figure 5). Projected U.S. crude oil production declines to 5.3 million barrels per day by 2025 in AEO2003, an average annual rate of 0.4 percent between 2001 and 2025. Production is 0.2 million barrels per day lower in 2020 than in AEO2002 due to projected reduced production from the lower-48 onshore by 2020, particularly from enhanced oil recovery (EOR) operations. The lower level of lower 48 production in AEO2003 relative to AEO2002 is partially offset by projected increased production from Alaska and higher levels of production from the lower 48 offshore. Total domestic petroleum production (crude oil plus natural gas plant liquids) increases from 7.7 million barrels per day in 2001 to 8.0 million by 2025 due to an increase in the production of natural gas plant liquids (Figure 6).
Okay, so we have some perspective on the economics of oil for the US. Keep in mind that this leaves aside natural gas imports, domestic oil and natural gas production, and coal production (go read the various links for more details than you ever wanted to know). There is also the amount of money that the rest of the world spends on buying oil and other fossil fuels. But in an analysis of energy research funding one piece of the puzzle is the question of how much could be saved in oil import costs if a cheaper domestic energy source was available. Hence the high and growing cost of US imports must be kept in mind as a factor in the total analysis.
In terms of how the future business prospects of Middle Eastern oil states look the world demand for oil and natural gas promises to grow dramatically in the next 25 years.
In the International Energy Outlook 2003 (IEO2003) reference case, world energy consumption is projected to increase by 58 percent over a 24-year forecast horizon, from 2001 to 2025. Worldwide, total energy use is projected to grow from 404 quadrillion British thermal units (Btu) in 2001 to 640 quadrillion Btu in 2025 (Figure 2).
As in past editions of this report, the IEO2003 reference case outlook continues to show robust growth in energy consumption among the developing nations of the world (Figure 3). The strongest growth is projected for developing Asia, where demand for energy is expected to more than double over the forecast period. An average annual growth rate of 3 percent is projected for energy use in developing Asia, accounting for nearly 40 percent of the total projected increment in world energy consumption and 69 percent of the increment for the developing world alone.
What does this mean? More money for madrassahs. More money to pay the salaries of Wahhabi clerics in Indonesia, Pakistan, Europe, the United States and in other locales around the world. More money for wealthy citizens of oil sheikdoms to donate to the cause of jihad.
While there are a number of possible technologies whose development might eventually result in cost competitive replacements for fossil fuels I'm going to look at solar energy in the form of photovoltaics because I happen to think that photovoltaics have the greatest potential in the next few decades. Perhaps in the 2030s or 2040s fusion energy will become competitive. But in the foreseeable future the huge scientific problems with fusion pretty much make it irrelevant in a political policy discussion about whether a wiser science policy could help fight against terrorism and the spread of militant Islam.
Solar Energy-The conference agreement includes $95,000,000 for solar energy programs. As in fiscal year 2002, the conferees have combined the concentrating solar power, photovoltaic energy systems, and solar building technology subprograms into a single program for solar energy, with the control level at the solar energy program account level. The conference agreement includes funding for continuation of the Million Solar Roofs program at the prior year level; $2,500,000 for the Southeast and Southwest photovoltaic experiment stations; $2,500,000 for the Navajo electrification project; $1,500,000 to continue development of advanced integrated power modules for photovoltaic applications; $1,500,000 for the Palo Alto photovoltaic demonstration project in California; and $115,000 for a renewable energy demonstration at the Hard Bargain Farm Environmental Center in Maryland. The conference agreement also provides $4,000,000 for the National Center for Energy Management and Building Technology. Within available funds, the conferees direct the Department to spend not less than $5,500,000 for the continuation of work on concentrating solar power.
Note that the demonstration projects do not accelerate the development of newer and lower cost photovoltaic energy technologies. Some of these projects are probably there as pork for particular Congressional districts. Also, that $95 million is split between many areas besides photovoltaics. Compared to the billions spent per year on cancer research, the tens of billions spent importing oil, the hundreds of billion spend on national defense, the $2.2 trillion dollar US national budget, or the $10 trillion US national economy the $95 million on solar energy is chump change
While I couldn't find a more detailed breakdown of the solar energy programs for FY 2003 the FY 2002 spending levels suggest that only about one tenth of the photovoltaics budget of the US Department of Energy goes to basic research. Some budget language for FY 2002 from the House Energy and Water Appropriations Committee on July 05,2001 shows the approximate amounts for FY 2002 photovoltaic energy funding.
The Committee recommends $7,932,000 for concentrating solar power, an increase of $6,000,000 over the budget request and $5,868,000 less than fiscal year 2001. Both solar troughs and solar dish/Stirling engine technologies have the potential to be more efficient than solar tower technology. Therefore, $6,000,000 is provided to the Department for field testing of these technologies, and $1,932,000 is provided to the national laboratories for materials research, reliability testing, and support.
Photovoltaic energy systems are funded at $81,775,000, an increase of $6,000,000 over fiscal year 2001 and $42,775,000 over the budget request. The recommendation includes $8,700,000 for basic research/university programs and $18,500,000 for the thin film partnership program. The Committee supports cooperation with universities and industry to develop the science and engineering base required to move photovoltaic technology from the laboratory bench to the assembly line.
The Committee recommends $4,950,000 for solar building technology research, an increase of $1,000,000 over fiscal year 2001 and $2,950,000 over the budget request.
What they refer to as "basic research/university programs" is real basic research on photovoltaics. This amount is even smaller chump change. We need advances in basic research in photovoltaic materials to come up with materials that are inherently cheaper to fabricate. Well, that part of the budget is slightly more than a tenth of the total budget for solar energy. Then the thin film program is probably also for basic research. The manufacture of photovoltaic thin films (using future cheap nanotechnology fabrication techiques) is one potential way to make cheap photovoltaics.
The Solar Energy Industry Association says that the real amount of money going to solar research is actually declining.
Upon requesting funding regarding the Fiscal Year (FY) 2003 Budget, Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA) Executive Director Glenn Hamer noted that "although Congress appropriated $95 million for solar in FY 2002, after funding reductions and earmarks are accounted for, the available funding is considerably less. In other words, the solar program got cut last year." Funding that was expected to be available in 2004 from drilling in ANWR is already looking like it, too, will suffer from insufficiently prioritized budget cuts (US DOE 2002).
Where they speak of "earmarks" they are probably referring to pork barrel projects to build facilities that include solar panels. This does not advance the state of the art in how to make cheaper photovoltaic panels. Also, keep in mind that the $95 million was for all of solar energy whereas in the previous year the $81 million was for photovoltaics only.
What to make of all this from a public policy perspective? We are going to spend $75 billion on the Iraq war. That is over a few orders of magnitude more than we are spending on photovoltaics research. The questions you have to ask yourself are these:
The first question seems pretty easy to answer for the reasons previously discussed (madrassahs, Wahabbism, other forms of militant political Islam, terrorist funding). Cut the money flows and there will be less money available to cause mischief.
The second question of whether it is possible to develop cheaper substitutes for fossil fuels is harder to answer. But I fail to see why the answer will not inevitably be Yes. There are many kinds of materials known to be able to convert light to electricity. Most likely there are a far larger number of designs to do it are waiting to be found. Surely out of all of those combinations of materials that have photovoltaic qualities ways will be eventually be found to cheaply manufacture some of them.
The economic value for developing cheap photovoltaics is hard to calculate with any precision because many of the benefits do not show up directly in market prices. What would be the economic value of cities which have no fossil fuel air pollution? How valuable is it to stop the release of CO2 into the atmosphere? What does it cost the US in defense spending to deal with the problems of the Middle East? Also, how much of the threat of terrorism will be solved in other ways before cheap photovoltaics become available and how much will be solved by reducing the flow of oil revenue to the Middle East? The benefit that is easiest to calculate is the one that will come from lower energy prices. As cheap photovoltaics begin to displace fossil fuels the savings per year will be in the tens of billions of dollars per year.
Then there is the question of how long it would take for a well funded research effort to develop a cheap replacement energy source. It is hard to know. My guess is that it could be done in 15 or 20 years. Then it would take some more years to gradually displace fossil fuels as capital equipment would be replaced with new equipment designed for the new energy technologies.
The problem with increased photovoltaics research as a potential tool of national security policy is that it is hard to guess how long it will take to develop cost effective photovoltaics. The same is true for the other energy sources that potentially could some day become cost competitive with fossil fuels. Contrast the money spent on energy research with the money spent to overthrow the Taliban in Afghanistan. The outcome in Afghanistan was more predictable and very quick. The Iraq war cost a lot more than the overthrow of the Taliban but the outcome was similarly not in doubt and took a fairly short period of time. However, the longer term post-war US involvement in Afghanistan and Iraq is of indefinite length with many uncertainties associated with it.
Policy makers prefer to take action that will yield tangible results now. However, this myopia has not always been the case. In the late 1940s the United States began the policy of containment of the Soviet Union (see George Kennan's "Long Telegram" and his famous Foreign Affairs document the "X" Article for how it all began) and pursued this policy for decades (and Kennan's comments in 1996 after the Cold War was all over are very worth a read). The reason containment was adopted and pursued for a long period of time was that policy makers could find no short term actions to take to solve the problems posed by the USSR and communism. Granted, Cold War era foreign policy makers made many quick moves for immediate outcomes as part of the containment strategy. But the sum total of all those quick moves by themselves could never bring an end to the threat posed by the Soviet Union. What was important was that US policy makers believed that they had to no choice but to pursue long term policies whose duration could not be predicted with any precision.
The United States lacks a policy motivated by national security concerns to create technologies to effectively decrease and eventually eliminate the world demand for fossil fuels. The chump change spent on solar energy research demonstrates the lack of an ambitious goal for US federal government energy policy. Why is this? The pursuit of cheap replacement technologies would be a long term policy to achieve a long term goal. But to justify the pursuit of a long term policy the policy makers have to believe that we are facing a problem that can not be solved in the short or medium term using existing policy tools. The heart of the US problem with energy policy as a national security issue is that policy makers do not believe that they face a long term problem with Islamic terrorism. Does our reliance on Middle Eastern oil seriously aggravate a problem that can not be solved with other policy tools 10 or 15 years? One has to accept that the answer is Yes before one can even begin to see the national security value of a long term major effort to technologically obsolesce fossil fuels.
The debate on the relevance of energy policy to the most pressing national security problems is a debate about the time line of the war on terrorism and the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. Would the US derive a national security benefit if it could defund the Middle Eastern oil sheikdoms 10, 15, or 20 years from now? Would the ability to do that reduce the spread of militant Islam and the threat of terrorism and WMD in the hands of terrorists? If it would then energy policy should be placed at the heart of national security policy planning. It is a question worth debating.
I realize that photovoltaic power is not the only possible way to replace fossil fuels. But since it is so promising the small amount of money spent on basic photovoltaics research serves as a good example of the lack of seriousness in current US energy policy. Also, I am aware of the problems with photovoltaics in terms of energy storage, short winter days, and clouds. But make it cheap enough and there will be plenty of economic motive to develop ways to better store the electrical energy that photovoltaics could produce when the sun shines (e.g. convert it to hydrogen, develop better battery technologies, or use it to make hydrocarbons). Also, high energy industries could gradually relocate to the sunnier climates and some production processes could be shaped to run more rapidly when cheaper power is available. It is also worth noting that air conditioner usage peaks when the sun is shining brightly.
I normally post on energy technologies on FuturePundit and you can find the past postings in the Energy Tech archive. This posting is on ParaPundit because it has more to do with national security policy, politics, and terrorism.
|Share |||By Randall Parker at 2003 May 04 02:42 AM Politics Grand Strategy|