An Apollo Program for Climate Change

By David Sokol
Friday, June 22, 2007

In May 1961, President John F. Kennedy committed the nation, by the end of that decade, to landing Americans on the moon and bringing them safely back to Earth. Kennedy identified specific interim goals, such as developing a lunar spacecraft, new rocket booster technologies, and the deployment of satellite communication and weather observation systems.

In asking Congress to support his goal, he said that the effort "will last for many years and carry very heavy costs" and that it demanded "a major national commitment of scientific and technical manpower."

Today, many political leaders say that climate change is the defining challenge of our generation. Unfortunately, they fail to provide Kennedy's understanding of what is required, much less the resources and leadership, to succeed.

The race in Congress and several states to adopt aggressive cap-and-trade emissions-reduction mandates is disconnected from the reality of our country's electricity supply and the state of technology for reducing carbon dioxide emissions.

More than 50 percent of our nation's electricity is derived from coal, and 20 percent comes from nuclear power. Natural gas generates roughly 17 percent of our electricity; hydropower, 7 percent; non-hydro renewables, 1.6 percent; and small fossil fuel units the remainder.

Each of these fuel sources possesses environmental and economic strengths and weaknesses. Coal has held a dominant role because it is abundantly available domestically, it's cheap, the price is relatively stable, and it is ideally suited to constant power generation.

The problem is that coal creates large amounts of carbon dioxide when it's burned. The industry has reduced other emissions, including sulfur dioxide and nitrous oxide. But we don't have readily available technologies to remove carbon dioxide.

Yet shutting down U.S. coal plants is unthinkable in the near term and would have devastating consequences for the reliability and cost of our electric grid. As it is, electricity demand grows about 1.7 percent annually, and new supply significantly lags this growth.

Renewable energy, such as wind power, is experiencing huge growth, and energy-efficiency measures are helping to slow demand. But these initiatives cannot come close to offsetting our reliance on coal.

Placing caps on carbon emissions before the technology is available to actually reduce those emissions will simply impose a tax on the American people without any positive environmental benefits. There has to be a better way.

What's needed is a joint effort from the power sector, customers and the environmental community to push Congress and the Bush administration to live up to their rhetoric on clean coal, renewables, new nuclear power and efficiency programs.

Federal research and development funding for energy has declined 85 percent since the early 1980s, and efforts to fund the initiatives authorized in the 2005 Energy Policy Act have been sporadic at best. The $7 billion to $9 billion that President Kennedy sought for the space program in 1961 would be the equivalent of $46 billion to $60 billion today. By contrast, the Energy Department's annual civilian R&D budget is barely $2 billion.

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