Pushing a Power Portfolio

Week in Review / by Evan Lerner /

As alternative energy funding plans are rolled out, a long-running debate over nuclear rages on Earth and in space.

Illustration: Mike Pick

With President Obama’s much-vaunted $18 billion funding boost to American science starting to trickle in, there was some debate as to whether formerly cash-strapped organizations would know how to effectively disburse that money to many worth researchers in a wide variety of fields. But on Tuesday, Obama got a little more fine-grained in his approach, pledging $3.4 billion worth of stimulus money to more than 100 smart grid projects.

Smart grids not only attempt to modernize the physical infrastructure of power transfer, but to merge it with information technology. On a smart grid, data flows alongside electricity, but not just from generators to consumers. Data flows in the other direction, too, telling grid managers where load is highest. And where power is variably priced based on demand, a smart grid could tell your clothes dryer to turn down the heat when the rate goes over a certain amount per kilowatt. 

Smart grids can make reductions in carbon usage through efficiency gains, but while they are still connected to fossil fuel-based power plants, there’s only so much benefit we can wrangle from them. That’s why another funding announcement has piqued the interest of alternative energy buffs: the kickoff of ARPA-E, which is organized under the Department of Energy as a parallel to Department of Defense’s DARPA. Just as DARPA is designed to do high-risk, high-reward research on military-related technology, ARPA-E will do similar work on energy projects.

While its name doesn’t have quite the cool cache of its older brother (DARPA sounds like a place that is developing heat rays and bone-regenerating paste, EARPA would sound like a bratwurst-fueled belch), ARPA-E at least brings to mind the environmentalist hero of the decade, WALL-E. And while WALL-E is powered by the Sun, kitchy Earth nostalgia, and the love of an egg-shaped astrobiologist war-machine, the power portfolio suggested by this pie chart is far more diverse. More than 30 universities and private corporations received funding for projects in biomass, solar, wind, geothermal, carbon capture, ultracapacitors, and more. 

Mutually Assured Discussion

Among these energy options, the black sheep remains coal and other fossil fuels. This was reflected in the partitioning of the ARPA-E pie; carbon capture got the smallest slice. That is, it received the smallest slice of projects that got anything. Conspicuously absent was anything directly related to advancing nuclear power technologies. Though the Boxer-Kerry climate bill that has been in committee meeting this week contains provisions for expanding US nuclear investment, President Obama’s former opponent John McCain remains the more outspoken proponent of it. 

So if coal is a black sheep, nuclear is a pulsating, neon green mutant sheep with two heads, in that the green movement’s position on it is decidedly schizophrenic.

Take Stewart Brand and Amory Lovins’ ongoing debate over nuclear’s prospects, which has raged at Grist, NPR, and elsewhere. Brand thinks that like the opposition to GMOs (which Seed’s Maywa Montenegro tackles here), otherwise progressive people oppose nuclear power out of a deeply rooted, but ultimately unfounded, technophobia. 

And like the debate over the future of food, the one over nuclear seems to be particularly tough to reconcile as even the numbers that define the size and scope of the problem seem to be in play. For GMOs, this would be the amount of food we currently produce and the amount that will be needed to feed a population of 7, 8, and 9 billion. For nuclear power, the numbers in question are the potential gigawattage available from remaining fissile material, the amount of carbon dioxide nuclear plants could obviate, and most contentiously, the cost and time it will take to build a new generation of nuclear power plants. 

And while it doesn’t look like the two sides will come to common ground on those figures anytime soon, we can always look to Europe as a testing ground. Plans to phase out older nuclear reactors, which were drafted in the early 2000s when anti-nuclear sentiment was stronger, are themselves being phased out. Germany has had the most recent reversal, keyed on Chancellor Merkel’s reelection and a more pragmatic-than-ideological youth committed to reducing carbon emissions at all costs.

Indeed, if the “bright green” vision of nuclear power as part of a climate change solution is to be realized, it will owe much to a new generation of environmentalists. These are people who did not directly experience the fear of nuclear war and who—perhaps rightly—believe that carbon dioxide is more dangerous in the long run than nuclear radiation.

Nukes in Space

But the nuclear debate even extends beyond Earth’s atmosphere. Though their closest Earthbound analogs—submarines—have been nuclear-powered for decades, NASA has never put a reactor into any of its crafts. The only nuclear power in space are stars and long-range satellites (which use waste heat from plutonium pellets rather than nuclear fission). 

But now the heat is on. The Russian space agency has greenlit the development of a nuclear-powered rocket, intended for a manned mission to Mars. When Seed’s Lee Billings spoke to Franklin Chang-Diaz last month about VASIMIR, the nuclear-powered plasma rocket he is helping to develop, he said exactly this would happen if the US didn’t take the lead. 

Instead, NASA has opted to build the Ares 1-X, quite possibly the tallest firework in history. The skinny rocket had its first successful test-flight on Wednesday, but may already be in jeopardy of burning out. The final Augustine Commission Report, released last Thursday, noted how expensive Ares is and suggested that cheaper options for getting to low Earth orbit might need to be explored if NASA’s budget continues to be squeezed. Maybe they can finance the thing with their new iPhone app?

Even if it is an economic boondoggle, it will be a shame if Ares is scrapped; it sure looks good in HD.

Each week, Seed’s Evan Lerner offers his take on the events and issues that shape science, science policy, and science journalism. Read previous Weeks in Review here, or follow him on Twitter.

Originally published October 30, 2009

Tags climate competition energy space

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