Monday, July 20, 2009

Apollo or Manhattan project for energy won't work.

On the occasion of the 40th anniversary of the first men landing on the moon, there's more talk about establishing an Apollo-scale project for solving the energy/climate crisis.
Lloyd Alter at Treehugger throws some cold water on that idea:
And [the Apollo project] was a marvelous accomplishment. But as a model of design and engineering, it was a one hit wonder, an extravagant waste of materials, and not a model for anything we should be doing today.

He links to an older article by Dan Greenberg at The Chronicle Review who sums it up nicely:
As handy metaphors for all-out government concentration on a clearly identified technological goal, Manhattan and Apollo are winners. But care should be taken in extrapolating their success to today’s energy problems. The big difference is that Manhattan had one customer, the U.S. Army, and Apollo also had only one, NASA (with a pork-happy Congress cheering it on). The goals were clear: Beat the Nazis to the bomb and the Soviets to the moon. Financed with blank checks, run by chiefs appropriately referred to as “czars,” and unimpeded by diverse political and economic interests, the two projects decisively proceeded to their successful conclusions.

In contrast, our energy and climate-change problems originate more in political, economic, and cultural entanglements than in technological deficiencies.
Sure, laboratory wizardry is needed to make do with less and cleaner energy sources, but the reality is that superior technologies remain undeployed because of the aforementioned impediments.

I would add that its more than just one customer that made those projects successful. Its that they were focused on building one physical thing: an atom bomb and a rocket to the moon. They had a much more well defined problem then "solve the energy crisis." As has been pointed out multiple times, there is no "silver bullet", no one machine to build, that can solve the climate/energy crisis. You have to do a lot of things: efficiency, transportation infrastructure, renewable energy production. There's some well-defined engineering problems to work on but those will do fine within the current research structure, provided they are adequately funded. The political and cultural work to be done is greater.

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