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US elections: Who will avert the energy crisis?

15 October 2008

From the New Scientist print edition.

Fred Pearce, Palo Alto, California

Special report: How our economy is killing the Earth

It's hot—close to 40 °C under the scorching California sun—and David Mills is loving it. He's the chairman of Ausra, a solar energy company attempting to pioneer a made-in-America revolution in renewables.

"In the coming decades, clean energy is going to be 10 times bigger than the internet and IT combined," says Mills. "It's not just mad scientists any more."

Mills is a symbol of how California is set to lead this nascent revolution. A Canadian, he spent more than a decade at the University of Sydney in Australia developing his ideas on generating electricity by heating water with the power of the sun. Last year, frustrated by what he saw as government indifference, he packed his bags and took his company to California, attracted by the state's plan for renewables and by the relative abundance of venture capital.

"The energy business is the largest business in the world, and with climate change it all has to be replaced," he says. "We are just waiting to deliver the boom."

Mills is not alone. Industry analysts say up to $50 billion in capital is now waiting to be invested in solar projects in the Nevada desert. But there has been a problem: Washington DC.

Under the Bush administration, the US Bureau of Land Management has granted permission for oil companies to prospect on 30 million hectares of federal land. Yet it has refused applications for putting solar panels and reflectors across a total of 400,000 hectares of western states—enough for 40,000 megawatts of electricity-generating capacity.

Until recently, the government has also been stubborn on agreeing tax credits that would facilitate renewable energy investments such as the deal Mills has struck with Pacific Gas and Electric, California's largest power company. The project entails covering 2 square kilometres of California desert with reflecting glass. This will create the capacity to generate 180 megawatts of solar thermal electricity that would supply peak-load power at premium prices.

Will the presidential election change this? It seems all but certain. This year's spike in the price of oil, coupled with concerns over environment and national security, means that both candidates are promising to dramatically accelerate America's shift to new and cleaner sources of energy.

For McCain, that means distancing himself from the record of his fellow Republican, George W. Bush. This is something McCain can credibly do as an early and ardent sponsor of climate legislation in the Senate. However, McCain's new-found enthusiasm for offshore oil, and his choice of Alaska governor Sarah Palin as his running mate, may not have improved his public perception. Although both campaigns favour increasing the availability of domestic oil and gas, Palin would go further and drill for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

McCain's energy solution has three main elements. The first is nuclear power, with federally funded research and development and a "streamlined planning process" to ensure 45 new power stations by 2030, plus a go-ahead for the long-planned nuclear-waste repository at Yucca mountain in Nevada, which Obama opposes.

The second is to develop "clean coal" by capturing carbon dioxide at coal power stations. But there are serious doubts about this. In January 2008 the Bush administration pulled the plug on a $1.8 billion R&D programme, citing soaring costs and hinting that the coal industry was reluctant to put its money where its mouth is.

The third element is the development of a better battery for electric cars, for which he proposes offering a prize of $300 million, or $1 from every American. McCain mentions renewables on his website wish list - but they come last.

Obama's vision appears more detailed and wide-ranging, embracing targets for low-carbon fuels, more efficient cars and subsidies and tax breaks to kick-start development of renewables. He promises to fund a massive expansion of solar, wind and geothermal electricity along with biofuels, electric cars and much else. He says this will create 5 million jobs and "save more oil than we currently import from the Middle East and Venezuela combined".

McCain says he will eliminate subsidies for corn-based ethanol, though he has toned down his past hostility to the technology. Obama faces controversy over his close association with biofuels. As a senator for Illinois, the US's second largest corn-growing state, he has supported subsidies for corn ethanol but now acknowledges the need to move on to more sustainable biofuels. Obama's emphasis on renewables and the infrastructure needed to utilise them is welcome news to Mills. "Just 10 per cent of the Nevada desert could power the entire country," he says. In theory. The missing link is a proper national electricity grid to distribute the power across the nation. "Most of our solar power is west of the Mississippi, whereas most of the load is east of the Mississippi," he says.

Unfortunately, the US has a rather primitive national grid. In fact, it is three regional grids. To power the US with the sun would require a complete reconfiguration of the system, so that the vast solar resources of the west could be sent east.

It's likely that only a huge federal programme—rather like the interstate highways, built half a century ago—could deliver such a grid. Obama's plan talks of establishing "a new digital grid ... to make effective use of renewable energy and energy storage". "Any new industry needs government help to get to scale," says Mills. "Fossil fuels and nuclear have a lot of back-door advantages: governments assume liability for any nuclear accidents and subsidise waste disposal. But solar has a value beyond the energy it supplies, and policy should reflect that." In contrast, McCain would let the market choose which energy alternative will ultimately succeed.

Either way, with private investors and government budgets both under pressure from the global credit crisis, it's clear the next president will need to exhibit extraordinary leadership to reinvent America's energy future.

US Election 2008 - Science and technology are at the heart of many of the issues facing the candidates. Find out more in our special report.

Energy and Fuels - Learn more about the looming energy crisis in our comprehensive special report.

From issue 2678 of New Scientist magazine, 15 October 2008, page 14-15

Keep it clean, gentlemen

When the advisers of Barack Obama and John McCain met to duke it out over energy policy, the most striking thing about the exchange was the similarity of the opposing proposals, and also how radically both differ from the policies of the Bush administration.

In a debate on 6 October at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Obama's representative Jason Grumet railed against the nation's current "myopic focus on petroleum". Similarly, McCain's adviser, former CIA director James Woolsey, spoke of "destroying oil's strategic role" in world geopolitics.

The two camps did differ, however, on how best to encourage new sources of clean energy. According to Grumet, Obama would subsidise specific clean energy technologies, including carbon capture and storage, to the tune of $15 billion per year with funds recouped from carbon cap-and-trade tariffs.

McCain's commitment, according to Woolsey, would be "effectively parallel [but] what will be different is the degree of detailed management and choices".

Citing past failures in federal programmes backing hydrogen fuel and liquid fuels derived from coal, Woolsey said McCain preferred to let market forces decide what sources of clean energy will succeed.

In contrast, Grumet made clear that a government-led effort to increases efficiency would play a larger role in an Obama presidency. "We are the 22nd most energy efficient developed country," he said. "I don't think we'll be number one, but I'd like to think we could slip by Chile and Belarus and break into the top 12 in the next eight years."

Phil McKenna

Last updated: 2009-08-20 (ISO 8601)