2003 May 04 Sunday
Energy Policy, Islamic Terrorism, And Grand Strategy

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.

Various Benefits Of Cheaper Alternatives To Fossil Fuels

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:

  • cleaner and therefore healthier air to breathe.
  • less production of hot house gases that may be leading to global warming (though I'm a doubter on the seriousness of the problem).
  • lower cost of imports due to a reduced need to buy oil.
  • lower defense costs and less strategic vulnerability as there would no longer be a need to keep the Persian Gulf open to shipping and the regimes there stable enough to protect their oil fields.
  • A cheaper alternative would, by definition, cost less!
The Cost Of Oil Now And In The Future

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.

In the longer run US oil imports will grow as domestic oil production declines and total demand rises.

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.

Photovoltaic Research Funding Examined

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.

US government Solar energy programs currently get a total of $95 million in yearly funding.

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 Could Accelerated Photovoltaics Research Accomplish?

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:

  • Would the elimination of the world demand for fossil fuels enhance US national security?
  • Is it possible to develop technologies that could displace the need for fossil fuels as energy sources?
  • What is it worth to develop such technologies?
  • How long would it take to do so?

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.

Energy Research As A National Security Policy Tool

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.

A Question Worth Debating

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

Donald Marshall said at May 4, 2003 9:25 AM:

Sound good but are the big domestic oil companies going to permit the demise of the oil industry?

Brent M Krupp said at May 4, 2003 9:45 AM:

Fantasizing about solar cells is useless without looking at the basic science of just how much terrain would be needed to soak up that much sunlight and the vast capital costs of installing that many millions of acres of them. Steven Den Beste addressed much of it here: http://denbeste.nu/cd_log_entries/2002/07/Carbonemissions.shtml.

It doesn't matter how wonderfully efficient we manage to make solar cells, or even how wonderfully cheap (relative to what cheap memory chips or other silicon devices cost now)... it'll take HUGE numbers of them spread over HUGE areas and if you don't use the energy to make hydrogen (which is what Den Beste addresses) you also need battery systems to store the energy at night.

Randall Parker said at May 4, 2003 11:32 AM:

Brent, The amount of terrain needed is not a problem because future solar panels will be made to be roof shingles, side panels, and other structural elements on the outside of buildings.

California is 411,013 square kilometers. Why is Den Beste worried about using 231 square kilometers to get electricity to power cars? A lot of that would be on existing structure surfaces. Where is the problem with that solution? I do not see it.

He says we need 231.7 million square meters. But divided by a 33 million population that comes out to about 7 square meters per person. The question then becomes what is the total roof area of all houses and commercial buildings (office buildings, warehouses, stores, repair shops, factories, hospitals, etc). My guess is that it is close to that 7 square meters per person and perhaps more. So just by covering existing structures we can probably get the amount of energy that Steve thinks would require the covering of about one two thousandth of the area of California.

Granted there are additional factors here to consider. Some parts of California get less sunlight. Some building roofs can't be covered by photovoltaic shingles. But then there are the walls of other buildings that could also be covered with photovoltaics (imagine housing siding that is made of photovoltaic material) and possibly even materials advances that would allow roads to become photovoltaic collectors. What's the surface area of all roads in California?

Steven Den Beste said at May 4, 2003 3:39 PM:

Distributed photovoltaics would only make sense as a way of generating electricity. Even if they were implemented the way Randall suggests, that would have little effect on the amount of petroleum we use, because we do not burn much petroleum to generate electricity. Our primary source of energy for electricity is coal, with much smaller amounts coming from nuclear and hydro. Extremely small amounts come from burning petroleum or natural gas, but generally those are too expensive for regular use. They're burned in plants which only come online during brief periods of extremely high energy demand.

Electric power consumption varies considerably over the course of 24 hours, and the generation capacity feeding the power grid has to vary as a function of demand. Many power plants don't run full-out 24 hours per day; they're turned on and off. The peak power usage depends on the place and the season. In the American SouthWest peak power usage for the year is early afternoon in August, because of air conditioning. In the NE peak power usage is early evening in the winter, because of lighting and cooking and home heating. But even in California, for most of the year peak usage is in the evening, when a distributed photovoltaic system would be useless.

Another problem is one of finance and implementation. If we had a centrally planned economy and a police state, implementation of such a system would be relatively straightforward: the government commands, the people implement. Fortunately we don't live in such a system, and the question would be why anyone would actually buy these things and mount them on their homes and offices. There's an initial investment, and a certain amount of upkeep expense, and there's some sort of payback in the form of reduced electric bills. However, for any given individual what you're talking about is an investment. They spend some money and get some return. Is the return greater or less than other ways they could invest that same money? Would they be better off continuing to use power from the grid, created by burning coal at a large plant, and putting that money into the stock market? Probably they would be, and in that case there would not be broad implementation unless it were mandated by coercive law, unless power from the grid got ridiculously expensive. (And given that it comes from domestically-mined coal, it's probably going to rise but not enough to cross that threshold.)

By the way, my calculation of 231 square kilometers was based on the amount of energy used in California in the form of gasoline for automobiles, which was the subject of the linked post. That number has nothing to do with overall energy use, or with electrical energy use. Most of us use much more energy as electricity than we do in our cars.

It's easy to stand well back and look at things and say "It makes sense that..." but when you look at them close up, with a real view of what would actually be involved in implementation, you often discover that they make no sense at all. Randall seems to think that the only reason we aren't using photovoltaics is because of a lack of will and investment. The reality is that there are other factors involved which increased government spending would not affect. Most of these kinds of proposals for alternative energy sources turn out to be impractical when you look at the details. It's not that they won't work or that they can't produce power, but rather that they can't be used to produce enough power to become politicaly important in terms of reducing our consumption of imported petroleum. In some cases it's just that there's no way for them to ever produce enough power to make any difference (which is the case with wind mills) and in other cases it's because the problems involved in scaling them up make it impractical (which is the case with biomass). A lot of the reason that these kinds of alternatives don't get a lot of work is that the problems with them are fairly obvious and the decision makers know that huge amounts of money invested in them would largely be wasted. (Most of the money assigned to these programs is pork-barrel spending.)

Last year I wrote several posts about this exact subject, and talked about a lot of alternatives proposed by various people and explained the practical problems with them: post1 post2 post3 post4 post5

We engineers have a saying: "Nothing is impossible for the man who doesn't have to do it himself." Randall has made a convincing case for why it would be really valuable for this country to try to heavily use solar power, although he doesn't address the fact that producing more of our electricity using solar power would have little effect on petroleum use. But the fact that something is desirable doesn't mean it's feasible, and though some kinds of practical problems can be solved through investment in research, some cannot be because they aren't fundamentally technical problems. Photovoltaics work, and further research could probably scale up production and bring down prices, but photovoltaics will never generate an appreciable percentage of our total energy for reasons which increased investment in research cannot change.

emre said at May 4, 2003 3:44 PM:

Well, what about the desert? new mexico, arizona, and utah are hardly populated and get decent sunshine. I think if they were to cover most of that with solar panels, the energy collected from those panels could power a good portion of those states.

Even if you can't power most of the united states with solar panels, it would surely help out. It's not a good solution to entirely replace oil, but at least it will help to reduce some oil usage. It's all about making a difference (even if it's not that much).

But Randall Parker suggests some good ideas. Even if you couldn't cover the entire roads with solar panels, having just one 3 feet wide strip next to the road would generate A LOT of energy. These things dont need full sunshine anyway (just take a look at most calculators).

But in the end, I think most people [in the United States] don't care about the environment, and they'd rather go to the gas station, rather than buy a less powerful and smaller (and weird looking) car. And that's one reason why oil/energy companies and car makers don't want to invest in clean energy.

Randall Parker said at May 4, 2003 4:49 PM:

Steve, Transportation uses about 35% of the US energy consumption (though the US government puts it at 28%). My guess is that is higher for California because California uses only 60% of national average per capita electrical power.

Why do we not have enough space for photovoltaics? Quadruple your estimate for gasoline energy needs to account for other energy needs and we are up to 28 square meters per person. Let us put that in perspective. The US is about 9.3 million square kilometers. There are about 30 people per square kilometer. Well, those 30 people have a million square meters and only need about a thousand of them to get the energy they need from photovoltaics.

Aside: If Washington State is indicative of national trends then transportation and residential energy use are growing faster than other uses.

Let us assume really cheap photovoltaics. Given cheap PV can methods of storing and transporting the resulting energy be developed to make PV a feasible energy source for most uses? Granted, a lot of research and development would be required. We'd have to get above the chump change level of spending on the research to make it happen. But is it possible to create better methods of storing energy? I've reported on some approaches that might solve the storage problems over in my FuturePundit Energy Tech archives. In particular, read MIT prof Donald Sadoway's views on the potential of lithium polymer batteries.

But other approaches are conceivable. A favorite of mine is to develop a catalysis system (either chemical or biochemical with a genetically engineered microorganism) to use photovoltaic electrical energy to fix carbon out of the atmosphere to generate hydrocarbons. This is what plants do in their chloroplasts. Why not do it ourselves? This would allow the hydrocarbon economy to continue operating with existing fossil fuel burning capital equipment to use the energy. The hydrocarbon energy could be in liquid form and therefore easily stored. But the cool environmental part about it is that the CO2 taken out of the atmosphere in the fixing process would balance the CO2 released by the burning stage.

Bob said at May 4, 2003 11:48 PM:


With respect to your speculation regarding an average of at least 7 square meters of roof per person, a ten foot by ten foot room has approximately nine square meters of ceiling. A room with a ten foot exterior wall similarly has approximately nine square meters of external exposure. Even accounting for the necessity of a southern exposure, I think it is safe to assume at least 7 square meters per person except in extremely densely populated housing projects.


Randall argued for directing more money to basic research with the goal of reducing the cost of alternate energy sources below the current price of oil. He also argued for emphasizing basic research over pork-barrel. It hardly seems reasonable to dismiss the argument on the grounds that the resulting cost of alternate energy would be too high relative to the cost of oil and on the grounds that most alternate energy funding currently goes to pork-barrel.

Off the top of my head, given Randall's figures, if the US cut the pork-barrel and funded the basic research, the US could fund research into 1000 alternate energy sources at 10 times the current funding level for basic research into solar energy alone or 100 alternate energy sources at 100 times the current funding level for basic solar energy research for the low low price of one Iraqi Freedom--without the ancillary nation building costs.

Guessing that it might take 20 years, we could divide the above by 20. The US could fund the 5 most promising alternate energy sources each year at 100 times the current funding level or the 50 most promising energy sources each year at 10 times the current funding level. That's 20 years of aggressive research for the price of a few weeks of offensive warfare.

It would only take a single winning alternate energy source to achieve the diplomatic and political goals. Once the price of an alternate energy source is reduced below the current price of oil while duplicating some of oil's desirable properties, it will reduce the present value of any oil reserves.

Currently, we power vehicles using petroleum products because petroleum products have desirable properties related to portability, stability and cost. I see no reason for your pessimistic assumption that all possible alternate energy sources are necessarily non-competitive on at least one of those properties. The basic research Randall would like to see funded could very well tilt the playing field in favour of a different fuel.

At one time, we lit homes and public areas by gaslight. Then Edison came along and "tried all the ways to make an incandescent light bulb that don't work".

You might argue that Edison spent the money to try all the ways that don't work for his own profit, and I am a big fan of the profit motive. However, tanks and radar were developed through public funding to address specific challenges related to specific conflicts. Likewise for ironclad ships, hunter-killer submarines or even just the rumours and threats of strategic defence.

It is interesting to note that, in this case, the basic research need not even solve the problem of finding an alternate energy source--it need only provide sufficiently promising results to convince an Edison to take it the rest of the way.

Defunding fascist terrorists in the middle-east is as legitimate a war aim in the war on terror as developing radar was in WWII or tanks in WWI. Right now, we have no reason to believe we will win a decisive victory against terrorism in the next several decades just as, in 1950, we had no reason to believe we would win a decisive victory against the soviet union in the next several decades. I'd say that's all the more reason to start now.

Even if it turns out that we win some other way, as happened in WWI with the tank, we won't really have lost anything by trying.

Trent Telenko said at May 5, 2003 9:47 AM:


The killer for solar cells is they still have not reached the cross over point of generating more energy than it takes to make them. Especially if you include the costs of bioremediation for the chemical nasties used to make PV cells.

PV cells work in GEO orbits from a power generation perspective because they have a whole 24 hour day and unfiltered sunlight. They still don't work from a cost perspective as the whole space-industrial complex to build solar power satellites would cost more then the current American utility system.

Randall Parker said at May 5, 2003 11:01 AM:

Trent, I get that. I am not advocating the subsidy of purchase of PV made with current manufacturing techniques. Also, I am not advocating the subsidy of engineering work to refine current PV manufacturing processes. Current generation PV cells require such pure silicon crystals to make them that the approach has limits on how cheap it can become. I'm advocating the funding of a large number of basic researchers to find new combinations of materials that work better and which are easier to manufacture. Carbon nanotubes are one approach. There are others that show promise which involve the use of far less pure and more easily manipulable materials.

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