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By Robert Rapier on Apr 9, 2009 with no responses

Steven Chu at the 2009 EIA Energy Conference

Because I am terribly snowed under, I am going to provide the summaries in pieces. But there are some other options if you want immediate gratification on all of the sessions. Professor Dave Summers – aka former editor ‘Heading Out’ at The Oil Drum – has several updates posted at Bit Tooth Energy. Neal Rauhauser, who is founder of the Stranded Wind Initiative, also published a summary over at Daily Kos. Eventually, I believe all of the presentations will be available as was the case for the 2008 Energy Conference.

Day 1 – Steven Chu Speech

I was quite looking forward to hearing from Energy Secretary Steven Chu, so I grabbed a seat up front. Chu started off by saying the DOE is the biggest source of science funding within the government, and that science and technology absolutely must solve the energy issue. The major thrust of his speech was that we must rein in carbon emissions to avoid a climate catastrophe, but he primarily focused on electricity. Chu correctly noted that imported oil has become a huge drain on the economy and that recessions typically follow oil price spikes, but there was otherwise scarce mention of liquid fuels. As Professor Summers points out in his summaries, the speech followed pretty closely a speech that Chu gave two years ago. In fact, he used quite a few of the same slides.

The first step that we need to take, according to Chu, is to make a big investment in energy efficiency. He would also like to double alternative energy production in 3 years, but again the talk was centered around electricity. Chu noted that solar PV will play a major – if not the major – role in energy 100 years from now. He also noted that we really need cheap solar cells with polymer backing. Of course most of our polymers are oil-derived, which is just another example of how we take for granted the role that cheap oil plays in enabling some of these renewable technologies.

When he did talk about liquid fuels, he discussed some DOE programs in which bacteria and yeast are feeding on sugars and producing gasoline and diesel. As I have noted before, I think production of fuels that can phase out of water is the right approach. This greatly minimizes the energy requirements for purification. It is technically very challenging, but there are some companies working on this approach.

Questions/comments were collected from the audience. I submitted a comment and two questions:

1. It seems ironic to me that the domestic oil and gas industry is being marginalized while at the same time you are pleased with OPEC for not cutting production. (What I was thinking but didn’t write: If you really want to see what it might be like to marginalize our own oil and gas industry, encourage OPEC to cut a couple more million barrels/day of production.)

2. Predict the year that cellulosic ethanol achieves true commercial viability. (I was really interested in his thoughts here, and whether he distinguished between gasification and true cellulosic ethanol).

3. What percentage of our transportation fuel will be biofuels in 2030? (Most projections show that it will still be overwhelmingly petroleum-based, and I wanted to see if he thought the same).

These questions were basically designed just to get a feel for whether I think his views are overly optimistic. However, he only took two questions from the audience:

1. What is most important – energy independence or CO2 reduction? Chu’s answer: He compared it to the game he played as a kid: Which would you rather be, blind or deaf? Of course they are both important, but I think the gist was that he considered the CO2 issue more pressing.

2. How does nuclear power fit into your plans? Chu’s answer: It must play an important role this century.

Following that, he exited out the back. I thought he had left the building, but when I stepped out to grab a cup of coffee I bumped into him. He had about 10 people lined up to shake his hand, so I passed on that opportunity. Maybe next time. But in an upcoming essay, I am going to address a theme that I think about often: What If I Am Wrong? It will essentially be about risk assessments (What If?), but I also want to pose the question to someone with Chu’s basic views, and ask about the consequences if he turns out to be badly wrong on some of his assumptions.

In the next essay, I will run through the rest of the conference by focusing on bits that I found interesting/odd/etc.