Forget Paris. Clean energy could be our next moonshot.
It’s extreme hyperbole that causes far too many of us to stop paying attention and move along. That is a far greater threat than withdrawing from the largely-symbolic Paris climate agreement could ever be. It could come at the cost of America’s unique leadership role around the world.
On April 12, 1961, the Soviet Union won the race to put a man into space. Yuri Gagarin’s 108-minute orbital flight aboard Vostok 1 bested American efforts by about a month.
Our nation was embarrassed. It was a shot fired across our bow. If we weren’t going to get serious about the space race, we simply needed to withdraw.
A little more than a year later, John F. Kennedy challenged us to be winners. Speaking at Rice Stadium, he threw down the gauntlet and dared Americans to plant our flag on the moon:
We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win.
Kennedy tapped into the same part of our national psyche that Trump recently used to win election. We’re competitive and hate losing. We simply need a clear moonshot to help us focus. The pursuit of radically cleaner energy might be it.
China, Germany and a host of other nations would love to take our mantle of global leadership. Superior energy generation is their key to victory.
Historically, industrial growth and competitiveness hinge on cheap, readily-available energy. Fossil fuels–particularly coal–have played an important role in meeting that demand. Their use also comes with a cost. The extreme air quality issues currently plaguing China are a powerful recent example.
But what if China, Germany, Russia or another global player largely dependent on coal could meet the energy demand without the pollution cost? What if one of those countries could actually reduce the price of electricity at the same time?
The course for the race is set.
Thankfully we have the inside track to victory if we move beyond the myopic politics presently plaguing us. China currently depends on coal for about 70 percent of its energy generation. Germany is abandoning its nuclear pursuits by 2022, and state-run energy players dominate Russia.
Don’t think of this in terms of whether you “believe” in climate change. Instead of engaging in the cultlike practice of sorting out the climate believers and the heretics, let’s focus on whether we still believe in American exceptionalism.
Why limit our focus to carbon? Why not shoot to be the first G-8 nation with zero emission energy production?
The feat represents a high bar from our current posture, but we have reasons to be optimistic about our chances of success. Natural gas affords us the perfect bridge fuel to absorb economic shock and allow markets the necessary time to develop the next wave of clean energy technology.
Our abundant gas reserves have done more to shutter coal plants than the Paris agreement or any EPA regulation. When the market demands natural gas as the lowest-cost source of energy generation, we should take advantage of its radically reduced emissions profile. Natural gas electricity generation produces about 50-60% less carbon dioxide as coal, 99 percent less particulate matter, 90 percent less carbon monoxide, and 100 percent less Mercury.
That’s already a massive environmental win. More importantly, it means our generational moonshot doesn’t require heavy government direction or subsidization. In all probability, winning the clean energy race will likely have more in common with the development of the Internet than a national space program. We simply need to unleash the power of a marketplace hungry to innovate.
While taking advantage of the pollution reductions from natural gas, we must kick our nuclear energy production into high gear. It’s amazing technology that’s grown stale because of a stifling regulatory scheme. We need our best and brightest developing new nuclear technology in a regulatory environment that ensures public safety while allowing for experimentation.
Wind and solar are becoming competitive without subsidies, but still face challenges posed by intermittency. The Holy Grail is an effective, economical battery able to store electricity at peak generation times and discharges it later. Something like a publicly-funded X prize for advances in battery technology made widely available might advance that priority exponentially.
We have a clear path to radically reduce pollution, and we’d be foolish to surrender the space because we’re too busy shouting at each other. The race for the cleanest energy generation must not be a void into which we surrender the idea of American exceptionalism. I have not yet experienced so much winning that I’m tired of it. Forget Paris. We all have an interest in American success, and I’m willing to give clean energy a shot–a moonshot.
Image by zhangyang13576997233