Spring 2013 Bulletin

The Future of Energy

Robert Rosner

At a meeting sponsored by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the Royal Society, Academy Fellow Robert Rosner, William E. Wrather Distinguished Service Professor in Astronomy and Astrophysics and in Physics at the University of Chicago, and Royal Society Fellow Peter Littlewood, Associate Laboratory Director for Physical Sciences and Engineering at Argonne National Laboratory and Professor of Physics at the University of Chicago, offered their views on the future of energy. The symposium was the second program in a lecture series on ‘GREAT Science,’ organized by the U.K. government’s Science and Innovation Network to profile international science excellence. Academy Fellow Robert Fefferman, Dean of the Physical Sciences and the Max Mason Distinguished Service Professor of Mathematics at the University of Chicago, moderated the program. The meeting took place on November 1, 2012, at the University of Chicago. The following is an edited transcript of the presentations.

Peter Littlewood

Peter Littlewood

Peter Littlewood is Associate Laboratory Director for Physical Sciences and Engineering at Argonne National Laboratory. He also holds an appointment as Professor of Physics in the James Franck Institute at the University of Chicago. He is a Fellow of the Royal Society.

The Royal Society is very proud of itself and is rightly considered to be one of the great societies of the modern era. Its history is very practical. In founding the society in 1660 after the restoration of the monarchy, King Charles clearly wanted to make sure he was in charge of these unruly academics and could get them to do useful things for him.

And quite rapidly, the Royal Society got involved in giving out research grants. One of my favorites was to Christiaan Huygens, the Dutch physicist who, I think, was the second foreign member of the Society. His funding, which today we would call a military research grant, was to work on clocks.

At the time, it had already been recognized that if you had a good clock, you could figure out where on the planet you were – useful when you wanted to invade another nation. And the British navy was winding up to start doing just that kind of thing. (Amusingly, at this time Britain and Holland were frequently at war, and here was Huygens sitting in Holland taking English money!)

Huygens was trying to build very accurate pendulum clocks, and in order to do so he constructed them in pairs. This was the only way of checking how good they were. By building two identical clocks, he would be able to tell if the time they were keeping was slightly different, and that would enable him to judge how well they were working.

Huygens built his clocks in a common frame, so they really were identical. What he discovered was that they were also coupled. He noticed that, although they did not normally beat at exactly the same time, when the air was very still in the room, they synchronized.

This was an enormous intellectual breakthrough, the foundation for much of modern linear dynamics, for the basic understanding that goes into lasers, superconductors, and so on.

Unfortunately, it was a bit ahead of its time. When Huygens reported his discovery to the Royal Society (the paper was read to the assembled multitude), they were not very impressed. The response was, “We asked you to build accurate clocks, but your clocks are so bad that one clock can influence the time of another.”

So, not only was the research grant not renewed; the Society actually lost Huygens’s paper. About a century later it was discovered in the basement and was finally published around 1780. At this point, I am not sure whether the Society set science forward or backward!

Until about 200 years ago, we lived moderately sustainably on the planet, at least by modern terms, because most of the energy came from the sun, usually in the form of food, and work meant the physical labor of human beings or of a horse or ox.

The Industrial Revolution, however, was, not accidentally, powered by fossil fuels. But within about a century or so we will have to change our behavior. And we don’t want to return to the age of the horse and cart.

Now, I am not going to talk about climate, I am not going to talk about nuclear energy, and I am not going to talk about fusion. Nor am I going to talk about policy. What I do want to do is to raise some issues about renewable technology for energy generation, storage, transmission, and use.

I think it is worth trying to adopt a posture which assumes that we have solved these problems and can look back and figure out how we got there. I am a theoretical physicist, and this is the kind of thing that theoretical physicists like to imagine.

The goal will be that we have electrification as widely as possible, and the reason for that is physics. A certain amount of energy comes from the sun, and we want to be as efficient and as effective with it as possible. I want to have the lowest possible number of conversions between the source and the use. My view is that the best thing to do is to turn photons into electrons, moving them around because they are very light.

If we did have efficient energy capture from sunlight, and had efficient storage, efficient transmission, and efficient use in lighting, refrigeration, motors, and the like, we would be in a very good situation. Can we do it?

A second point is that energy is money. We often talk about the cost of energy, but two centuries ago everything was priced in terms of its energy input. In medieval times, the standard unit was the cost of a workman’s labor.

For a very short period in our history, energy was free, and that colored our technologies and the way our society works. But energy is no longer free, and we might begin to think about it as if it were actually a currency.

How close are we to that? Well, take the example of a wind turbine. You can buy a wind turbine for about $10 million – an Enercon E126, which is actually a wind turbine with a 126-meter wingspan; it is a big object. Rated at 7.5 megawatts and weighing 6,000 tons, it costs, at $10 million, $1.50 a kilogram. That is the right way to think of things like this.

The reason it is this simple is that wind turbines are made of stuff. Steel costs about $1.00 a kilo, aluminum is about $2.50 a kilo, and the cost of both of those is principally the cost of the energy that goes into them. In the case of steel, the energy cost is about one-third of the overall cost. For aluminum, it is more than one-half of the cost.

Incidentally, if you want to figure out how much to pay for something, you can apply the “hamburger rule”: weigh the item and multiply it by the cost of hamburger, and you will get roughly the right answer – that is because hamburger is also energy.

Having a wind turbine, you can work out that if you run it at 35 percent efficiency and sell your electricity at about $0.10 per kilowatt hour, it will pay for itself in three to four years. That is why you see lots of wind turbines. (By the way, I could have done that return on investment not by going from dollars to energy to dollars but by going from energy to energy, energy in to energy out.)

As we approach what I think of as asymptopia, when the price of things converges on the price of the energy cost going in, those calculations would be much more sensibly done in terms of energy, but this works best if we have efficient markets in energy. Otherwise, we deal with currency volatility, which is driven by the fact that, because energy is actually a rather stable commodity, valuing it in terms of dollars, pounds, gold bars, or whatever is hard.

Another way of considering the matter is to decide how you would like your pension to be paid. Would I like Treasury bills or dollars, or would I like to be paid in kilowatt-hours? I would rather have the latter; it would be useful.

So now, the question is, “How much energy is there, and how much do we use?” The solar input, the amount of energy arriving at the top of earth’s atmosphere, is approximately 345 watts per square meter. That is what gets converted to heat, to wind, to waves, and to rainfall. Just about the only renewable that is not driven that way is tides.

U.S. energy use is about three terawatts. That is five billion microwave ovens or the solar flux on 10,000 square kilometers, which is about the area of Delaware and Rhode Island.

If we look at U.S. energy intensity, how much energy is used per square meter, it is actually 0.3 watts per square meter on average. Big country, a lot of energy use, but 0.3 is a relatively low number. That is one part in 1,000 of the solar energy which is incident on the United States. It is actually about the same number as India and China, but for very different reasons.

In the United Kingdom the number is two watts per square meter, about an order of magnitude bigger. In a densely populated city-state like Singapore, the number is fifty. Go in the other direction, to a country like Brazil, it is 0.03.

Singapore is going to be importing energy forever, whereas Brazil has relatively low-cost, straightforward solutions such as low-intensity biofuel. In short, different levels of energy density mean different energy policies for different countries.

If you want to get solar energy, the best technology is a nineteenth-century one, a parabolic mirror and a steam engine, which will, in good condition, generate twenty watts per square meter on average. (That is twenty coming out of the 345 that came in.) Current best technologies in solar photovoltaic are lower, around five to six watts per square meter. Wind energy is mostly mixed up with thermal energy, so the energy intensity is about the same.

Rainfall and dams are about one to two watts per square meter where they exist, and we have already used up most of those sites. Wave is negligible in the United States but actually quite important to a country with a long coastline and small land area, like the United Kingdom. Biofuels range from three or four watts per square meter to minus two for some ethanol programs. In contrast, if you take a nuclear power station, you can get ten gigawatts on a square kilometer, or 10,000 watts per square meter.

So, if you want to use renewables, they have to be deployed on a country-size scale. Practical applications of these technologies are going to take up something like 5–10 percent of the U.S. land area – that is the combined area of New Mexico and Arizona.

A separate issue, one about which people get confused sometimes, is cost. It is possible to make a positive return on investment with current technologies. Wind is going up relatively rapidly. Photovoltaics are different, but at $1.00 per kilowatt hour, which is roughly where we are heading, you get a payback in around three or four years. With our current biofuels, it is possible to make money but at the cost of raising the price of food.

The reason that some of these technologies are not more common is that they do not scale. In 2011, solar photovoltaics installation in the United States was ten square kilometers, which sounds like a lot but is about the size of the Phoenix airport. What is needed is something on the scale of 10,000 square kilometers.

Doing that would cost a few trillion dollars, so we could actually afford it, but we could not manufacture the stuff to make it work. We are in a kind of forced market for photovoltaics because, for slightly obscure reasons, we are at a point where we could make money out of it, but there is no way it could make a dent with current technologies. Not to mention the substantial interlocking issues associated with the grid, with storage, and with everything else.

Jumping forward a century, I am absolutely confident that the science problems will have been solved. Nothing in the laws of thermodynamics stands in our way. For example, I can imagine a very simple device made from two different materials, ten nanometers thick, put together so it has an internal electric field and is called a ferroelectric, which will absorb the solar spectrum efficiently, will separate the carriers, and will store them in situ at an energy density approaching that of gasoline.

I am pretty confident that such a device is possible, but I have no way of manufacturing it cheaply, and no way of building it to scale. Why? Well, we have not been trying very long or very hard. Our materials technologies are driven by information technology. Over the last century, science (which is being driven by technology, not the other way around) has been driven toward smaller, faster, more expensive materials.

Some say that to have large-scale materials you have to engineer them on the nanoscale and then fabricate them by the ton or the square kilometer. In fact, we do not have any large-scale materials technologies that conduct electricity other than wires. Metal, an ancient technology, is about the only thing we have.

It is a science problem but also an engineering one, because we have to develop new principles of design, new classes of materials. We have to find out how to self-organize on the nanoscale, and we have to push them very hard. And while that sounds like it is being driven by technology, I am absolutely certain that all kinds of unexpected science will come out of those drivers. (We could have an entire discussion about how science disciplines are, in fact, created in response to technology drivers, how, say, the technology driver of building better clocks led somebody to invent the mathematics which now produces semiconductors and lasers.)

At Argonne, the most fundamental of our programs is directed at gaining better control of our materials. We need to be able to engineer them precisely on the atomic scale, to design them in such a way that we know where each atom goes and what it will do.

Those of you who are not physicists might imagine that since we have had the Schrödinger equation, which controls all of this stuff, for nearly a century, we should know how to do this, but actually, we do not. Most of materials science is applied serendipity. We discover stuff, are amazed by it, and the science community chases it off into some corner to shine bright lights on it. Then some poor postdoc who has not discovered what the latest fashion is, digs around in some other part of the field and unearths something else that is important. We need to get much better than that.

The other thing we can do is focus on those areas of renewables where we can make gains in a short period of time. Electrical storage is an important part of a renewable portfolio because it is necessary for the successful introduction of other technologies. You cannot have wind power unless you know what to do when the wind is not blowing. And you cannot have solar power unless you know what is going to happen when the sun goes behind a cloud.

The market in lithium batteries is already substantial – most people here today probably carry around two or three. Given this, we have a real opportunity, for example, to drastically reduce the consumption of imported fuel.

It is very difficult to make these changes in a developed country, however, because we have a strong fossil-based energy infrastructure and our economy is driven by short-term price concerns. The most rapid developments might well occur in the developing world, because they care more than we do. In Chicago, an electric car represents a modest choice based on cost and convenience.

But if you are in a village which is not on the power grid, and somebody gives you a set of linked technologies – solar photovoltaics, electrical storage, efficient refrigeration, and lighting – that means an enormous change. It means you have food storage, so you do not need to walk to the market every day; it means you have vaccinations and healthcare; and it means you have education. This is where we need to focus, because these are the changes that will actually change the world.

That also means that the economic transformation – and I am confident it will take place – is going to follow a certain geographical and social line. The ramifications of that are very difficult to predict. But as it is done in the past, so it will do in the future. We need to pay as much attention to the hidden benefits of what we are trying to do as we pay to the obvious ones.

Robert Rosner

Robert Rosner

Robert Rosner is William E. Wrather Distinguished Service Professor in Astronomy and Astrophysics and in Physics at the University of Chicago, and currently serves as one of the founding codirectors of the Energy Policy Institute at Chicago, as well as director of the Center for Exascale Simulations of Advanced Reactors. He was elected a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 2001 and serves as Senior Advisor to the Academy’s Global Nuclear Future Initiative.

When I first came back to the university from Argonne, I was very curious about how energy technologies, which Argonne is heavily involved in, enter into the real world and affect our lives.

I had a chance to speak with a number of folks from industry, and what I kept hearing was not that they were particularly interested in the latest scientific advances but that they were particularly interested in the issue of policy. That is, how does one actually take energy technologies that are developed in a laboratory, bring them through the development cycle, including the engineering, and then actually commercialize them in the context of a regulatory environment. Because in the end, if you do not commercialize energy technologies, you have not done anything – at least not from the point of view of the energy we want to use.

Materials scientists, I keep discovering, have lots to say about this topic. Richard Smalley invented the buckyball and carbon nanostructures, and after he won his Nobel Prize he turned to energy. He made a list of what he called the top ten problems of humanity. At the top of the list is energy, and all of the items he listed are interrelated, but if we have energy available and can deploy it, then we have one of the necessary tools to do something about the other issues.

So, given the fact that we live in a highly polarized political climate, what does it mean to formulate energy policy? What does it mean to implement energy policy? And what do we really mean by the word policy in the present political climate?

What is our energy policy? If I were to go to the library or Google, would I actually find a document that spells out U.S. energy policy (in the way that phrase is understood elsewhere in the world) or that describes what the government is doing in a coordinated way across a broad range of activities? You will be disappointed to learn that there is no such document. Nor is there such a document for industrial policy or, for that matter, environmental policy. These documents do not exist.

We do not broadly coordinate our efforts in science and technology. However, just because we do not have a document that says “this is our policy” does not mean there is not a policy. Policies often exist simply as a de facto set of things that we do.

It is useful to think a bit about what happened in the past. In the late 1700s, early 1800s, there was a real revolution in how we lived, namely the Industrial Revolution, and the original power source for this revolution was not fossil; it was water. The very first industrial locations, in the United Kingdom, in the United States, and in continental Europe, were near rapidly flowing water.

But coal did make its presence felt quite early on, and the coupling of coal and industrial development was key to what happened both in Europe and in the United States. As measured by world per capita GDP, the wealth created as a consequence of the Industrial Revolution has been dramatic.

Coupled to that revolution are some unpleasant facts. One has to do with the introduction of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Rising levels of wealth and CO2 have been coupled, and they are both the consequence of the Industrial Revolution. To what extent can we reconcile this?

In the United States, one usually does not discuss industrial policy, energy policy, or environmental policy as a coupled system of policy issues. Not so elsewhere. In Europe, for example, energy policy is often subsumed under the more general category of industrial policy, and environmental policy is usually thought of as a kind of constraint on what can be done.

In the United States, it is widely acknowledged that our energy security, our national security, and our economic security depend on having an innovative and agile manufacturing capability. And that depends on having access to energy.

But we also have a perspective, especially prominent during the election season, that government should not pick winners or losers, that the market decides. This is confounding. We recognize the importance of certain things but say government should not intrude too much. But to what extent do these two imperatives actually interact? Are they consistent with one another, and have we applied them consistently?

In the eighteenth century, the federal government was involved in building canals on the East Coast. In the nineteenth century, the federal government was very heavily involved in the First Transcontinental Railroad. The federal government was centrally involved during the 1920s and 1930s in building dams and expanding the electric grid as part of the Rural Electrification Program. Finally, the federal government was instrumental in building out the road system in the United States, an initiative that was pushed by President Eisenhower.

I think it is fair to say that in all of these cases an industrial policy element motivated federal action, a notion that the United States was a manufacturing country that depended on exports, ready access to raw materials, and efficient transport, as well as energy. The idea was to make sure we remained economically competitive on the international level. And that was seen as a function of the federal government.

Today we could say that the federal program that supports, for example, the aircraft industry, through orders for fighter planes, is instrumental in furthering the industrial competitiveness of the civil aviation sector in the United States. To illustrate, many of the technologies in Boeing’s new Dreamliner aircraft – for example, fly-by-wire or the carbon fiber fuselage – were developed in the military context. When it comes to the competition between Airbus and Boeing, the Europeans like to remind us that we are heavily subsidizing Boeing’s commercial side through our weapons programs.

This example is not at all isolated: in case after case, the federal government intentionally intervenes in support of U.S. industry. Where does this leave us?

Energy costs in the United States today are remarkably low by international standards. For example, the price of natural gas is somewhere between $3.00 and $4.00 per million BTU. In Asia, it is $15.00–$20.00 for the same amount of gas. In Europe, it tends to be above $10.00 per million BTU.

So, from the point of view of energy supplies, we are extremely well positioned. But if we look at, for example, coupling what we do in the energy field with environmental issues, we know that this has been an area not just of struggle but, some people would argue, of abject failure over the past few years.

One typically sees controversy where economic interests collide. Think of the recent debates over subsidies for renewables. (Subsidies for oil and nuclear have been commonplace for thirty to forty years.) Think of the debates between rail transport and road transport. (Are these debates ever informed by consideration of which mode is, in fact, more efficient?) Think about the debates about high-speed rail versus aircraft transport for short distances, say, Chicago to St. Louis or Chicago to Detroit.

These questions are not debated on the basis of economic efficiency. They are based on other issues, typically ones having to do with competition between economic interests.

To what extent do we think about costs – especially life cycle costs – as determinative for what energy technologies we use? Well, it is awfully hard to figure out actual costs when they are concealed by various kinds of subsidies, the regulatory environment, and so on. Knowing which of several options is the best choice is often very difficult as a practical matter.

So, woe is us. But have other people figured these things out, and if so, could we learn from them? Well, we know that energy policy in Europe and Japan is usually understood as part of a larger picture of industrial policy. In France, Germany, the United Kingdom, and Japan the imperative is on maintaining their international position as places that make stuff and export stuff, and most creation is tied to exporting things that are made in country.

Their energy policy is thus an integral part of making sure that this, in fact, occurs. In particular, they recognize the importance of having the energy sources that are used for manufacturing to be dependable. This is coupled with maintaining the capability to actually do the manufacturing; for example, making sure that the workforce is maintained at a level where it can actually make stuff. Environmental policy has been viewed mostly as a complicating factor, mainly because, in places such as Germany, it has significantly raised energy costs.

In the United States, these issues rarely rise into the public forum.

What France, Germany, Japan, and the United Kingdom export the most of is stuff to which a huge amount of value has been added. Whether cars, optics, or pharmaceuticals, these are items requiring a talented workforce and high technology. Some of them also tend to be energy-intensive industries.

The key difference, I think, is that the role of government is viewed very differently in these countries, compared to the United States. Europeans, especially those on the continent, tend to reject the view, current in the United States, that national industrial policy is inconsistent with the currently ascendant economic theory. In Europe the government is usually not viewed as the enemy, and they reject the claim that industrial policy necessarily means that government is choosing winners. Why would government choose losers?

However, the conundrum in Europe is how to do all of these things, how to maintain economic competitiveness of the kind they are interested in while also maintaining an environmentally benign society. Germany is probably the poster child for this problem.

Germany faces enormous internal conflict about the use of nuclear energy. By and large, one finds consensus regarding environmental issues, but that consensus varies across the geography of Europe. The differences in labor costs in Western and Eastern Europe turn out to correlate with differences in views about environmental issues.

This has meant a huge incentive for German car manufacturers, for example, to move their manufacturing eastward. But for Germany that is an enormous problem from the perspective of maintaining a healthy labor market in the country. How this issue of Western Europe and Eastern Europe will play out remains to be seen.

Germany and the United Kingdom have very similar CO2 emission profiles, as do France and Sweden. (The United States, because of our high energy intensity, is in a class of its own.) The reason France and Sweden have such relatively low emissions levels is that they are heavily dependent on nuclear power. Sweden produces roughly 50 percent of its electricity through nuclear, and the balance is largely produced through hydro. In fact, Sweden’s CO2 production is largely due to its transport sector.

France is in a similar position. They are about 80 percent nuclear, and they have a strong hydro component. They produce some fossil fuel-based electricity, but not much. Most of their CO2 production again has to do with the transport sector.

What is striking about the temporal evolution of emissions profiles of France, Germany, Sweden, the United Kingdom, and the United States is that they are all heading in the same direction. In the case of the United States, I cannot point to specific national policies that account for the reduction. (I am dubious that the U.S. EPA CAFE mileage standards for vehicles can account for much of this reduction.) In the case of Germany, the downward slope is the result of quite intentional public policy moves by the German federal government.

What this seems to say is that it may well be possible that it hardly matters whether you have a policy because the end result may well be driven by other factors. We just have to figure out what those factors are.

This is an important point because in the developing world, the leading industrial countries – China, India, Brazil – are well on their way to dominating worldwide CO2 input to the atmosphere. Thus, their actions will largely determine what will happen to climate over the next fifty or so years. We may think we provide the exemplars of what to do, but these countries will be determinative.

Each of these countries has an energy policy, and if you ask them what drives their policy you find that their concerns are totally different from what they might be in the United States, and certainly in Europe.

A couple of years ago at a conference, José Goldemberg, who was then the energy minister for the state of São Paolo, said he found the American participants’ “woe is us” talk about climate to be interesting but completely irrelevant to Brazil. The number one issue for Brazilians was standard of living, not the climate. I think the same can probably be said for China and India.

Thus, the motivations felt in the developing world are likely drastically different from what motivates us, and it is not so obvious how what we do, our policies, and what we say to them can influence their behavior.

This brings me to my final point. I think it is fair to say that one of the reasons we in the United States have these polarizing debates about, for example, climate – debates that have not really made their presence felt in Europe – is because the idea of the social contract is felt here only periodically, and this is one of the periods when we don’t have one.

One of the consequences of this is that a large fraction of our population really does not see our government as a protector of health and security and as a promoter of industry and wealth creation. Many would like to have the government move out of these realms. This leaves us an outlier not only among the industrial nations but in comparison to the developing world as well.

We don’t have an obvious path for reconciling our political conflicts, and because of that our conflicts are going to be enormously constraining on our ability to move our economy forward in an efficient way. The real question, then, is how one rebuilds the social contract in the United States that allows us to heal the kinds of political divisions that are now blocking progress on reconciling our energy needs and our needs for job creation with environmental stewardship.

Historians tell us it has been like this before. U.S. history is full of periods of enormous social conflict and the sorts of disparities between political parties that we are seeing today. What history teaches us is that returning to a political climate that is a bit friendlier takes time. And, although we are a very impatient people, maybe the best counsel is to just be patient.

© 2013 by Peter Littlewood and Robert Rosner, respectively

To view or listen to the presentations, visit https://www.amacad.org/content.aspx?d=987.