Tech Policy Summit: Solving the energy problem

Tech Policy Summit: Solving the energy problem

Summary: Floyd Kvamme kicked off the Tech Policy Summit, which is advertised as a non-partisan conference attended by tech industry insiders, investors, policymakers, non-profit leaders, regulators and legal experts to "examine critical policy issues affecting technology innovation and adoption in Silicon Valley and beyond.

TOPICS: Emerging Tech

Floyd Kvamme kicked off the Tech Policy Summit, which is advertised as a non-partisan conference attended by tech industry insiders, investors, policymakers, non-profit leaders, regulators and legal experts to "examine critical policy issues affecting technology innovation and adoption in Silicon Valley and beyond."

Floyd Kvamme, partner emeritus at Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers and co-chair of the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST), discussing findings of a recent PCAST report on energy, He cautioned that the U.S. is on the "hairy edge of electricity," and recommended a return to the nuclear world, which he has called "the greenest of the green."

Currently, nuclear accounts for 20 percent of the energy produced in the U.S. The Energy Policy Act of 2005 has a provision for six new nuclear power plants as well for investment in biofuels, such as ethanol. "The elephant in the room is the bomb," Kvamme said. He noted that 56 countries are engaged in nuclear energy research or activity, and that the U.S. should not be shying away from the nuclear energy option.

The elephant isn't just fear of nuclear material getting into the hands of terrorists, but also historical fears among the public about the safety of nuclear plants and the storage of used radioactive material (Do you want a nuclear plant in your back yard? Not now, but within this century you just might.) Nuclear energy is also clearly politically charged and linked into the calculus of how world powers play out their chess game, as we have seen recently with Iran and North Korea. 

Coal and gas account for 70 percent of U.S. energy consumption today. Cleaner coal plants are an option, but the federal government is not in the best position to promote it, Kvamme said, because the state public utility agencies must approve what kind of plants are built. The states are often reluctant to approve cleaner coal plants because the cost of the output to consumers, which is about 15 percent higher. In addition, the various legislative efforts, such as the Clean Air Act, are politically charged, Kvamme said, and not simply subject to common sense interpretation and action.

For environmental reasons, hydro-electric energy is not in favor in the U.S., but renewable energy sources, such as wind and solar, are getting significant attention, according to the PCAST report. Kvamme noted that 120 tech companies have sprouted up within the last seven years working in the renewable energy space. "There is no way renewables can provide the lion's share of the current load or the increase in demand," Kvamme said. Ten percent of the requirement by 2030 would be good outcome for renewable forms of energy, he added.

Electric and hybrid vehicles, which could go 200 miles on a charge and take only a fraction of an hour to recharge will also have an impact in increasing energy efficiency. Biofuels, which have been around for years, will also put a dent in oil consumption, which is about 140 billion gallons per year in the U.S. Kvamme's venture capital firm is making major investments in the alternative energy sector.

The PCAST report also recommends more research in private and public sectors on energy. Kvamme suggested that private industry research is more likely to produce commercially viable products.  "To be a world leader, the U.S. must solve the issues of energy availability, security, cost and related environment issues. We have to attract the best and brightest to deal with the problems, and have a policy environment that encourages trial and error," he concluded. Providing tax credits for R&D, Kvamme suggested, might be one way to unleash more innovation in areas that are critical to U.S. and global energy policies.

Topic: Emerging Tech

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  • Maybe patents and regulations will help

    Help destroy civilization, that is.
  • Break the shackles

    None of this will happen until we get the jackboot of the environmentalist movement
    off our neck, and that will take a change in perspective that I just don't see
    happening in our current society. There was a time when the philosophy was that the
    earth existed for the betterment of humankind. That philosophy has flipped 180
    degrees, and people are treated as a burden and plague upon the planet.

    Of course, the reason for this is the same reason that has always existed: One group
    of people feel they have the divine right to tell the rest of us how to live our lives.
    • What do we do with the waste?

      Where are we going to store it, whose home towns are we going to move it through, and how are we going to keep from poisoning people and animals in the process?

      Until there are satisfactory answers to those questions, I don't see any more nuclear power plants being built in the US.
      John L. Ries
      • What do we do with the waste?

        Reprocess it, just like we did up until 1977 when Carter stopped it. From each ton of spent fuel we recovered over 1800 pounds of uranium that went right back into the reactor. Over 100 pounds of inert non-radioactive material was separated out, plus a few pounds of valuable radioactive isotopes with numerous medical and industrial uses. The remaining 70-80 pounds of high-level radioactive material had a half-life of less than a year; in 5 years its radiation level dropped by 98%. Since 1977 we've had to store the whole ton, plus produce another 1800 pounds of enriched uranium to refuel the reactor. There's enough fuel to keep us in electricity for 50 years sitting around while politicians bicker over how to "dispose" of it.

        That's not the only problem though. In 1952 we designed a reactor to power the USS Nautilus. It worked. And in 55 years all we've done is copy the same design. Most of the people in charge of those reactors are ex-Navy "nukes", as are a lot of those in charge at the NRC. Nobody has even thought about revisiting the basic design to see if there just might be a better way.
        Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition!!
  • The problem with nuclear

    Nuclear energy has a lot of hidden costs -- both monetary and financial -- that are seldom taken into account by nuclear energy proponents. The solution to our energy problems is not so much to keep increasing production (although that will be necessary in the short term), but to reduce demand.

    Our refusal as a society to look outside the box of centralized energy production and distribution prevents us from seeing technologically feasible and environmentally benign solutions to our energy problems.

    First, automobiles are a significant source of pollution and require an immense hidden subsidy of costs. Cars simply are not an efficient means of transporting people. Add in the costs of providing parking, fuel, and highway systems over-designed for peak traffic flows and you find tremendous opportunities to both save money and reduce environmental damage. Trains, buses (especially hydraulic hybrids), and non-motorized transportation are all well within our current technological capabilities. But they fail our atavistic social expectations for personal, private motorized vehicles. Remember, automobile culture is really a quite recent development. Prior to the construction of the interstate highway system in the 1950s (at a huge cost, BTW), most long distance transportation of people and goods was done by trains, which are extremely efficient. Intra-city transportation was done on foot (no suburbs then) or with public transportation.

    You mention that hydroelectric power is discouraged for environmental reasons. This specifically refers to large, centralized projects like the Hoover Dam. But decentralized, low-head hydroelectric power generation is quite feasible at minimal environmental cost. Power companies don't like it because discourages central control of power generation and distribution. But the customers can only benefit. A similar argument can be made with wind power.

    I have recently come to agree with environmental scientist James Lovelock's conclusion that we need to consider nuclear power to meet our energy needs. But this conclusion was not taken because nuclear power is safe and clean -- it is neither -- but because we as a society have pissed away our opportunities to use better solutions to meet our energy needs. Embracing nuclear power is an act of desperation; nothing more. We need the time nuclear can buy us in order to build a truly sustainable energy policy. But it should be seen only as a short term solution. My fear is once we have embarked on building more nuclear generating capacity the energy companies will use this as a means of solidifying their centralized control over energy and oppose moves to create a sustainable energy future.
    • RE: The problem with nuclear

      > First, automobiles are a significant source of pollution and
      > require an immense hidden subsidy of costs

      I agree...we need to completely rethink our approach to personal transportation. It's inevidable that the future will NOT involve fossil fuels and human drivers. It will look something like this:

      > Our refusal as a society to look outside the box of
      > centralized energy production and distribution prevents
      > us from seeing technologically feasible and environmentally
      > benign solutions to our energy problems.

      I completely agree. Have you noticed that most arguments don't even include a discussion of overpopulation? Without controlling population you will NEVER have a stable energy production scheme.

  • so how do YOU propose that we solve the issue

    both in short term, and in long term?

    Keep crapping in one hand and wishing in the other? You offer no solution, you only offer negativities.

    I agree that things shouldn't be centeralized. We should include ALL of the folloing: NUCULEAR, hydrid, wind, coal, wave generating, solar, bio, methane gas from the land fills.

    Lets see, you complain about disposal.. Ok oh bright one. What about the disposal of the hydrid batteries for the cars. What about the disposal of the solar panels? What about the energy needed to create bio fules? Get real. There is disposal issues with EVERY one of the alternatives.... Nuculear provides a short term solution until we can get more options online. Then Nuculear can then be a part of the overall solution, not the only one.

    It's people like you that tie this countries hands to foreign nations and their black mail policies.

  • "energy problem" debased by biased research, political nonsense

    The so-called "energy problem" is closely related to the issue of global warming (aka climate change) which has, unfortunately, become a political football. While there is now much scare publicity about killer storms and melting glaciers, a careful and less emotional examination of the situation by qualified technical individuals whose careers are not based on direct involvement (such as getting academic funding for "climate research" or the marketing of fossil fuels) is probably long overdue.

    Certainly there has been some small documented increase in the overall temperature of the earth over the past couple centuries -- an infinitesimal time frame given the millions of years the Earth's ecosystem has hosted living organisms. But all these observations lack any link to the well-known long-term warming and cooling cycles of the Earth's climate (e.g., ice ages as evidenced in the fossil record). These ongoing, continuous cycles have nothing to do with man-made "emissions," but might well have plenty to do with things like solar radiation patterns, volcanic activity, orbital perturbations, and random cosmic events over which nobody has any influence (see "Study Links Extinction Cycles to Changes in Earth?s Orbit and Tilt," New York Times, 10-12-2006). Here, paleontologists report that variations in the course Earth travels around the Sun and in the tilt of its axis are associated with episodes of global cooling based on the fossil evidence of extinctions among rats, mice, and other rodents over the past 22 million years.

    Furthermore, there is now an unwarranted faith in computer simulations of apocalyptic warming scenarios. Computers have an unimpressive track record for accuracy when it comes to predicting either short or long-term global temperatures according to Leland Teschler, Editor of Machine Design (September 28, 2006). Teschler, while advocating increased power generation from better nuclear reactor designs, observes that the same people who embrace computer projections of global warming refuse to accept computer projections of reactor safety.

    According to The Wall Street Journal (see editorial of July 14, 2006) routine assertions about the "1990s being the warmest decade in a millennium" are traceable to a paper by paleoclimatologist Michael Mann that contained a historical graph showing small, steady global temperature oscillations followed by a dramatic climb over the past century. However, the Mann research is plagued by statistical errors and simply ignores a generally-accepted warming period that occurred during the middle ages. When this warming is included it puts any present-day temperature gains within the accepted range of natural historical variation. The WSJ concludes that these errors were not picked up by peer review because published climatologists comprise a close-knit group who passionately believe in their global warming thesis. The Journal editorial reveals an academic mutual-admiration society at work, not the honest output of independent researchers seeking scientific knowledge.

    There is also the matter of increasing emissions from emerging nations like China. Here we have a huge new industrial economy that is unconcerned with curbing carbon dioxide output if it gets in the way of economic growth. Even worse, there are now raging fires in China's coal mines that produce vast quantities of noxious gases (see "Not So Good Earth," New York Times, 6-23-2006). The Times article reports that during 2005 these underground fires alone consumed more coal than was burned by all of Japan.

    Meanwhile, the polar-bear hugging crowd in the USA and Europe looks to cap off every domestic smokestack and tailpipe it can find. Yet nothing of any consequence to the Earth's climate is likely to result. Mandated carbon dioxide reductions (if seriously adopted anywhere) will be more than offset by uncontrolled and unregulated growth elsewhere. The idea that we can somehow establish a "carbon tax" or a system of "buying and trading carbon credits" (among emitters) that will make any measurable impact is, for now, a vastly overstated pipe dream. Only those who build their careers on onerous legislation that crushes consumers with endless new taxes and regulations have anything to gain here.

    Yes, we could all go see Al Gore's "An Inconvenient Truth" and be entertained ? by the words of a politician who has filtered any available science through a very thick political agenda. (George Bush and company are doing precisely the same thing only with alternate priorities.) My conclusion: The all-over patterns of global temperature change still lie outside the influence of our science and are totally oblivious to man-made politics.

    Energy independence (for the USA) is a sound goal based many technical and political scenarios that have nothing to do with global warming. If the alternative (to oil/gas/coal) energy sources being seriously developed today have economic merit, there is no reason to doubt that domestic engineering talent will bring them online quickly -- without massive and inefficient government meddling.

    Furthermore, concerned citizens who expect they can "do something immediately" about the energy problem will quickly find their best efforts thwarted by local zoning laws (try putting up a windmill in a typical suburban back yard and see what the neighbors think). Special and difficult to obtain permits may even be required for such benign constructs as roof-mounted solar panels.

    Energy-related priorities and the hard science necessary to justify them are still being sorted out and separated from mountains of political nonsense. Thus there is as yet no good reason to believe all those scary headlines about greenhouse gases. Most of the loudest, highest-profile voices (who would have no qualms about turning your life inside out in persuit of their "green mission") don't really know what they are talking about.
  • Hydrocarbons from solar: the only true solution.

    There is only one truly sustainable way to provide for the industrial world's energy needs: direct conversion of sunlight, CO2 and water into some form of liquid hydrocarbon, such as methanol for instance, though light sweet crude would be acceptable. Anything else is either a stopgap while we search for the holy grail of direct conversion, or, as in the case of nuculer power, completely insane.