Tuesday, August 21, 2007

How Serious Are We About Energy?

America's slide into industrial irrelevance continues.

Indian researchers have discovered a way to create biofuel from sunflower oil without heating it up first. (They use a fungus which secretes an enzyme, which ... well, click the link to Wired for details). The end result is a new and more efficient process, which equals cheaper fuel.

This is great news for the world, tyrannical petroleum oligarchs excepted. Cheaper, cleaner fuel is a very good thing. But it may also be disquieting news for those with a deep investment in American self-sufficiency (or, let's face it, hegemony). After all, Indians, not Americans, will hold the patent rights -- once again making our energy supply dependent upon the goodwill of foreign nations.

In the posts following the Wired story, somebody suggests that "we need a new Manhattan Project" searching for renewable energy, and that this won't happen "while Big Oil" runs the government. The author of the original story links to a post about some promising steps in that direction -- a $500 million gift from British Petroleum to some univerities for research, and US Dept. of Energy commitment of $125 million over five years, to create a Joint BioEnergy Institute. Both of these are wonderful ideas, at least in principle. (And if we can assume pure motives for an oil-besotted government and, um, and oil company).

But come now. $625 million is about one-third of the government's $1.9 billion investment in the actual Manhattan Project -- and that's without adjustment for inflation. In constant 1996 dollars, the Manhattan Project cost about $21 billion. To show the kind of seriousness about energy independence that it once showed about killing Japanese civilians, the government would have to triple public/private partnership spending -- or increase its own spending by a little more than one thousand percent.

Oh, and about the $21 billion: Yes, that's a lot of money, compared to my parish budget. But it's only about ten weeks' worth of the Iraq war.

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