New Manhattan Project Is Best Energy Solution

Posted on June 16, 2008

The United States should launch a new five-year Manhattan Project to put America firmly on the path to clean energy independence. This is the real way to deal with gasoline and electricity prices, clean air, climate change and national security. Instead of beseeching Saudi princes to produce more oil, the American president should tell them that within five years we intend to be well on our way to taking or leaving their oil. From the day our president says this, speculators and oil-rich states will become nervous, and prices will stabilize and eventually fall. The long-term solution will become the best short-term solution. Independence does not mean that we would never buy oil from Saudi Arabia, Mexico or Canada. Independence does mean that the United States could never be held hostage by any country for our energy supplies. The first Manhattan Project began in 1942 when President Franklin D. Roosevelt asked Tennessee Sen. Kenneth McKellar (D) to hide $2 billion in an appropriations bill for a secret project to win World War II. McKellar replied, “Mr. President, where in Tennessee do you want me to hide it?” That place became Oak Ridge, Tenn., one of three “secret cities” that became the principal sites for the project to build an atomic bomb before Germany could. In 1942, many were afraid that the first country to build an atomic bomb could blackmail the rest of the world. Today, countries that supply oil and natural gas can blackmail the rest of the world. This year, Americans will send $500 billion overseas for oil, some of it to nations that are trying to kill us by bankrolling terrorists. This situation weakens our dollar. It is half of our trade deficit. It is forcing up gasoline prices and crushing family budgets. Both Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Barack Obama (D-Ill.) have said we need a new Manhattan Project for energy. So why not get a head start, starting today, in a bipartisan way? First, do more of what we already know how to do, starting with exploration for more American oil and gas. The spectacle of President Bush asking Saudis to produce 500,000 more barrels a day when former President Bill Clinton vetoed Alaskan exploration that would have produced three times that much makes no sense. And we should permit more states to do what Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama do: explore offshore, keep three-eighths of the revenues and put one-eighth into the nation’s Land and Water Conservation Fund. For electricity, we should build five or six new nuclear power plants a year for the next 40 years — which is the only near-term way both to meet our need for large amounts of carbon-free energy and to deal with climate change. Ahead of both oil and gas exploration and nuclear power should come even more aggressive fuel efficiency and conservation. Next, we should turn our attention to what we do not yet know how to do. I propose seven grand scientific challenges that Congress and the federal government should tackle during the next five years in order to put the United States firmly on the path toward clean energy independence within a generation: 1. Make plug-in electric cars and trucks commonplace. In the 1960s, H. Ross Perot noticed that banks in Texas turned off their computers when they locked their doors at 5 p.m. Perot bought their idle nighttime computer capacity and made a deal with states to manage Medicare and Medicaid data. Banks made money, states saved money, and Perot made a billion dollars. Idle nighttime bank computer capacity in the 1960s reminds me of idle nighttime power plant capacity in 2008: The Tennessee Valley Authority, for example, has the equivalent of seven or eight nuclear power plants of unused electric capacity most nights. Beginning in 2010, Nissan, Toyota, General Motors and Ford will sell electric cars that can be plugged into wall sockets. TVA could offer “smart meters,” which would let Tennesseans take advantage of cheaper electric rates during times when demand is lower. A customer could “fill up” an electric car at night for only a few dollars. We have the plug. The cars are coming. All we need is the cord. 2. Make carbon capture and storage a reality for coal-burning power plants. Coal with carbon capture would provide for our growing power needs and be easily adopted by other countries. 3. Make solar power cost-competitive with power from fossil fuels. Solar power produces one one-hundredth of 1 percent of America’s electricity. But now there is new photovoltaic research and solar thermal power plants that make this a more useful option going forward. 4. Safely reprocess and store nuclear waste. Nuclear plants produce 20 percent of America’s electricity, but 70 percent of power with no mercury, nitrogen, sulfur or carbon pollutants. To build more nuclear plants, we must find a better way to store waste. 5. Make advanced biofuels cost- competitive with gasoline. Ethanol made from crops we don’t eat — such as switchgrass — shows promise and would have much less impact on food prices. 6. Make new buildings green buildings. Japan may miss its 2012 Kyoto Protocol goals for greenhouse gas reductions primarily because of energy wasted by inefficient buildings. 7. Provide energy from fusion: re-creating on Earth the way the sun creates energy and using it for commercial power. This is the long shot. The U.S. produces about 30 percent of all the wealth in the world, has the greatest collection of universities and laboratories, and is still the only country where people really believe anything is possible. These are the ingredients America needs to place ourselves firmly on a path to clean energy independence — and in doing so, to make our jobs more secure, to help balance the family budget and to make our air cleaner and our planet healthier. Senate Republican Conference Chairman Lamar Alexander (Tenn.) is a member of the Environment and Public Works Committee.