By Llewellyn King
Washington, D.C., June 14, 2010 — There is an idea that has been around for a long time, at least since the fall of 1973: All that stands between the United States and an abundant energy future is a lack of spending on research and development. It is as though the Knights Templar could find the Holy Grail, if only the Pope would commit just a few more resources to the hunt.
Tens of billions of dollars have been spent on energy research, many of them fruitlessly; and some advances have been made, not the least in the kind of drilling technology that enables us to drill miles below the sea floor in the Gulf of Mexico. (Oops!)
Much else has been researched and not come to market. Wind and solar have taken giant strides, but still require tax breaks and subsidies. Nuclear energy has been researched, even as its deployment has languished. Worldwide hundreds of billions of dollars have been spent on nuclear fusion with nothing to show for it. Other programs have gone by the board, from coal liquefaction to magnetohydrodynamics and ocean-thermal gradients.
The thing about energy research has been that there are many promising lines, but seldom a big success. The big successes, too, have been happenstantial. One such is the aeroderivative turbine; essentially, a fighter-jet engine operating at very high temperatures in steady state on the ground, and burning natural gas instead of kerosene.
On Thursday, a new set of highly qualified persuaders came to Washington to exhort the government to increase energy research and development funding from $5 billion to $16 billion a year, and to set up new organizations to channel and manage basic research on energy.
Some of the nation’s industrial savants, including Bill Gates late of Microsoft, Jeff Immelt of General Electric and Ursula Burns of Xerox, appeared at a press conference here as members of the American Energy Innovation Council. The chairman of the group, Chad Holliday of Bank of America, told the press: “Up until now energy investments have gotten short shrift.”
That is debatable. The problem with energy research has not been that it has been short-changed, but that it has often been directed at the wrong thing; it has often been diluted or spread out for political purposes. Farmers want ethanol research, coal states want carbon management, and the populous eastern states want carbon-free energy—so long as it is not nuclear.
The group of industry captains is not looking at the political social and economic divides which have negated so many past endeavors. Just when the nuclear industry was ready to enter its long-expected renaissance in the 1990s, it was broadsided by the new gas turbines. If the carbon in coal can be safely sequestered, does that solve the environmental problems of ripping coal out of the ground?
R&D always produces something of interest and often of value, but not always what it was directed toward. At the press conference, Xerox’s Burns said that innovation needed to be managed, and that the CEOs of the group knew that from experience.
Actually, the experience of Xerox itself may belie that. The original copying machine technology nearly perished for want of sponsorship and was finally saved by not-for-profit Battelle Laboratories. Yet later, when many of the innovations that made the rise of Microsoft, Apple and Cisco possible were developed at Xerox’s California computer laboratories, the company did not know what to do with them. But Bill Gates did. These two should talk.
The great Bell Labs produced optic fiber and the transistor, but did nothing with them.
Management is a lovely business when it controls but in so doing, it stifles.
If you want innovation, first get rid of the managers. Second, get on bended knee before the bankers.
A new energy think is needed, but first it is a good idea to know where we want to go.
—Llewellyn King is executive producer and host of “White House Chronicle” on PBS. His e-mail is email@example.com.