A Carbon Tax vs. Basic Research

If you want to reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 10% next year, a carbon tax is definitely the way to go. Ditto if you want 20% within a few years. But as I said before, if you want to stop global warming, you need to cut emissions in the industrialized world by at least 75% -- 100% if you don’t throw in some sequestration. This will be very expensive even harnessing the might of the market. Many Republicans balk. Some suggest we just do more basic research until we come up with an economically viable substitute for carbon fuels.

They have a point. The market excels at incrementally improving technology. But it sometimes gets stuck down a suboptimal path. Think QWERTY keyboard, Microsoft Windows, or the even more atrocious XWindows run by linux systems. The automobile industry has spent many billions refining the internal combustion engine. But what if we spent a fraction of that rethinking steam or Sterling cycle engines? It might take a few billions in basic research to reach a sufficient level of refinement for these alternatives to be competitive, but without a market until we get that refinement, where is the money to come from?

We could fund some of that basic research with a carbon tax. And a said tax would speed deployment by the private sector after government research has laid the groundwork. But higher fossil fuel prices would also encourage people to deploy many expensive existing technologies which may later prove to be dead ends. And suppose our labs do come up with something so great that conservation and car-pooling becomes moot? We will have wasted millions of man-hours turning off power strips, checking tire inflation, car pooling, etc.

Just so you don’t think I’m being completely far out, consider just these two possible breakthroughs:

Antenna Based Solar Power

Back in my high school days (the late 1970s) I was big on Jerry Pournelle’s ’s promethean approach to solving the energy crisis (along with associated environmental problems). Put the solar panels in space. In space there is no atmosphere, no clouds, and no nighttime. It’s always desert high noon (minus the dust), so you can get maximum use from those very expensive silicon crystals.

Of course, launching giant solar arrays would have required huge amounts of energy if done from earth. And a fab on the moon would have enormous startup costs. But then we’d have a base on the moon! And that was the whole point. Find any excuse to get that moon base set up and you’re halfway to anywhere in the solar system.

I’m too old and out of shape to dream of space travel these days; I don’t pitch space based solar any more. What I do still find interesting is the means to get the solar energy back to the ground. The idea was to beam microwaves down from the satellites and catch them with huge antenna farms on the ground. With wide enough beams the microwaves would be safe enough -- or so it was thought at the time. Today, we are running the experiments with our cell phones...

Anyway, why down convert light to microwaves to beam the energy down to antennas. Why not use antennas for light? Light is just electromagnetic radiation, after all, albeit at a higher frequency. (OK, it is also incoherent and about an octave in bandwidth, but still...) Why are we using bulk semiconductors to convert light to DC current without using antennas to capture the light? The Idaho National Laboratory is playing with the idea right now. From the cited page, they haven’t figured out how to rectify the current yet, and there are still issues with the antennae interfering with each other. On the other hand, they talk of 80% efficiency! (I wonder if that is over the whole spectrum of sunlight or just a narrow band thereof.)

Even if 80% is optimistic, getting efficiency well up over the 10% or so of the cheaper cells has very interesting implications. Most solar home owners today have to radically downscale their electricity use to live off the grid. Get the cells efficient enough and a rooftop can power our existing lifestyle. No conservation necessary! (Last month I used roughly 20 kilowatt hours per day. This will roughly triple during the hottest months. With an average insolation of 5 kW-hours/day/meter^2 in my area in the summer, I’d need (60/5)/efficiency square meters of solar panels to power my big old house and several computers. At 10% efficiency I’d need 120 square meters or nearly 1300 square feet of panels. That might work for a house optimally angled for solar, but I don’t think it would work for a retrofit unless I cover part of my yard in panels. Ugh! Triple that efficiency and the south roof and wall just might do the trick, however.)

I’d like to hurl some serious money at this idea. The question is: should this be done by an energy czar or a deep-pocketed angel investor? The former would have more money, but it might be useful for a private company to have a patent in order to encourage prompt end stage development and marketing. Since I am not in a position to make the decision, I’ll leave it up to you readers.

Rethinking Nuclear Power

With global warming the crisis of the day, environmentalists are giving nuclear power a fresh look. Nuclear power, done right, can have less environmental footprint than coal or even wind energy. But if you mess up, oops! And if we do the whole Disney nuclear thing, we get more opportunity for mess-ups.

But maybe we should really rethink nuclear energy. According to the Google Tech Talk embedded below, our current nuclear technology is much like this awful QWERTY keyboard on which I type: a fundamentally bad technology locked in by inertia. If we switch over to liquid fluoride thorium reactors, we might have nuclear energy that is safer, plentiful, has less waste and requires no conventional peak load supplemental generators. Grab some popcorn, settle back and watch this video. It’s long but well worth it.

If I were energy czar, I’d hurl a few billion in this direction. Given the safety concerns, it’s good to have government involved nuclear technology from the start. If money were tight, I’d turn off all fusion research and whatever remains of George W. Bush’s idiotic hydrogen economy initiative to make room in the budget. It might make sense to divert some military money for this research. The Air Force once looked into the idea for aircraft. It might be useful for our nuclear ships.

So, do we Ditch the Carbon Tax?

If either of the technologies matches the hype, they might prove economical even without a carbon tax. If we forgo a carbon tax, and focus on the pure research, we might be able to save people a lot of unnecessary conservation and dead-end technology. Or we might just waste a few years and find us still at square one if neither technology proves out. I’d recommend playing it safe and going with the carbon tax. Besides:

  • Even with cheap electricity, batteries for cars are still not cheap and there is no guarantee that pure research could fix this problem. Some solar home owners are still using Edison batteries.
  • Batteries for airplanes aren’t going to happen. Nuclear aircraft are too dangerous. Unless biofuels become cheaper than oil, we’d need a carbon tax to get people to either cut back on unnecessary air travel and/or get the airlines to switch to alternative fuels.
  • Our government is going broke. We need the tax money.
  • We are wasting talent complying with the current income tax. If we use a carbon tax as part of a replacement for same, we may waste money on unnecessary engineering, but I find that better than wasting money on creative accounting.

So, even though I favor some pure research on technology which is a bit too far out for the private sector to pursue, I still believe we need to go with a carbon tax if we want to stop global warming.