TechWatch: Can Technology Solve Our Energy Problems?

Everyone knows some part of the current energy challenge. At a very personal level, we see it in the cost of filling our cars with gas, or the cost of heating our homes. But the problem is much broader and deeper than this. I met recently with Lonnie Edelheit to discuss the issues. He is currently on the board of review at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory overseeing energy and the environment work, and is the former senior vice president of GE R&D. He described the challenges this way:

“There are two quite different problems that pull us in different directions,” “There are two quite different problems that pull us in different directions,” Edelheit said.” The first problem is that we buy our oil from people who don’t like us, and we don’t like them. Nations that don’t like us could do us great harm by simply reducing the supply. Second, there is the link between the release of CO2 into the atmosphere, and global warming. There is a debate about some of the issues associated with this connection, but most scientists agree that the connection is there, and we may be approaching a ‘tipping point.’ It will take a multifaceted push to drastically reduce the release of CO2,” he said.

Reality of Climate Change

Before looking at possible technological solutions, let’s see what is real about the issue of climate change. For this discussion I met with Tom Ackerman, director of the Joint Institute for the Study of the Atmosphere and Ocean, and professor of atmospheric sciences at the University of Washington.

“Our climate models show an increase in CO2 in the atmosphere starting about 1750, at the time of the industrial revolution. Using these models, we are 90 percent sure the bulk of global warming is caused by manmade greenhouse gases,” Ackerman said. “We’ll leave a little wiggle room because we’re scientists and that’s the way we think, but formally we call 90 percent very likely.”

Some of the uncertainty comes from a lack of data needed to refine the climate models, he said. We have a great deal of difficulty getting data in many of the poorer countries of the world. Further, according to a research report he cited, the poorest parts of the world are most affected by global warming, and they are least responsible for the release of CO2 that causes it. This adds to the ethical dimension of the problem.

Approach to the Problem

It would seem to be prudent to treat this as a priority and make a concerted effort to reduce emissions now. After the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the U.S. mounted a broad-scale effort to build an atomic bomb. The Manhattan Project had lots of money behind it as the scientific community focused on addressing a major threat. Edelheit argues for a “Manhattan-style project.” “The problem with this approach is that we don’t seem to have the political will to focus effort toward a common objective,” he said. “There is no Pearl Harbor focusing our attention.”

At the recent presidential debate, the approach to the problem of global warming came front and center when the question was asked of the candidates, “Should we fund a Manhattan-like project that develops a nuclear bomb to deal with global energy and alternative energy, or should we fund 100,000 garages across America, the kind of industry and innovation that developed Silicon Valley?”

It seems clear that the answer involves both. There are some small-scale technology solutions that can be worked on in garages, but there are some big coordinated efforts that will have to be made to achieve the overall solution. There is also the question of time frames. Some ideas on the table will take years to develop. We need an overall approach that produces some near-term savings as well as preparing us for the longer term.

Technological Solutions

There is no shortage of ideas on the table, and likely the best direction will draw from many of these ideas.

Renewable energy sources include wind, solar, and biofuels. Wind and solar are the cleanest because there is no “growth period” that itself uses energy. The sun doesn’t shine and the wind doesn’t blow just when and where you need the energy, so we need related technology to be developed in energy storage. In the meantime, work is being done in developing smart grids, electrical grids that can manage the energy generation with a much broader collection of sources than we have today. This, according to Friedman (Hot, Flat, and Crowded, see review in this issue) will also require some policy changes that reward utilities not just for selling reliable energy, but also for managing reliable energy.

Biofuels also are caught in the crossfire of technology and policy. Brazil generates its energy from sugar cane, and the U.S. has been using corn. Unfortunately, corn is much less efficient as an energy source — some have questioned whether it takes as much oil to produce the corn as is replaced by the biofuel. Clive Mather, former CEO of Shell Canada and the subject of the Ethix Conversation in this issue, argues that using food for fuel is immoral, and we should be focusing on bio waste such as cornstalks or wood chips.

Nuclear energy is a player as well, though the U.S. is way behind the rest of the world in building its nuclear capability. A battle is going on right now in North Carolina over plans to build the first new nuclear capability in the U.S. in 30 years. “Nuclear is a long-term solution, but with all of the approval and regulatory cycles, it is a very costly one today. I think we have shown we can deal with the waste issue, but the perception problem is very real. I would rather deal with these risks than the risks of a Middle East country cutting off our supply,” Edelheit said.

“We need a clean coal project, which uses the abundant supply of coal while capturing and sequestering the carbon,”Clean coal is another part of the solution, according to Edelheit. “We need a clean coal project, which uses the abundant supply of coal while capturing and sequestering the carbon,” he said. “We had a pilot project around clean coal that was moving through the stages of research. One of the problems was that once the program advanced from research at many sites to a prototype plant on one site, there was little political support for it in the areas not selected, and program funding was cancelled,” Edelheit said. “The disappointing thing about this is that it would have been an operating plant putting clean energy on the grid, so some of its costs would have been offset.”

One of the criticisms of clean coal is the potential for leaks from sequestered carbon, but of course this is much less dangerous than a nuclear leak. Information on this project is available at

The Product Side

Another dimension is to attack the use side. The advantage of electric cars, for example, is that the energy source moves from the pump to the electrical grid. Progress made on clean energy for the electrical grid will transfer directly to transportation. This involves revamping our cars and trucks.

We should also look at how we can reduce costly and wasteful packaging in our products as Saeed Paydafar reminds us in the Letters section of this issue. This kills trees, increases transportation costs, and adds to the problem.


Conservation remains a vital part of overall solutions. And while some conservation can and should be done by individuals and businesses, there are some technological possibilities here as well. Part of the work in smart grids enables the electrical grid itself to support conservation and load distribution. In hot weather with peak demands, the grid could turn off air conditioners for short periods of time each hour. The grid could provide timing capability to do clothes washing in the middle of the night when other demand is low. Even baking could be moved to the middle of the night by having the utility turn on your stove at the time of lowest demand. Friedman outlines a host of innovative ideas along these lines in Hot, Flat, and Crowded.

As these various things are tried, I trust we will learn from the past. I was working in power systems research in the 1970s and remember experiments carried out then, including shutting off air conditioning done by Detroit Edison. I also recall a Swiss utility that used price incentives to move washing and baking to the middle of the night, and actually moved peak load to two in the morning. There is much to learn, and relearn in the work. We should dust off these reports and see what was learned earlier.


Both the garage and Manhattan projects are needed. Technology and policy issues must be addressed together. And we need some scenario roadmaps.

When there are many alternatives and some uncertainties, there is a tendency to do nothing. Let’s not let small uncertainties in the models dampen the desire to reduce emissions. Let’s not let many possibilities from technology stop us from taking any steps. It will take some political courage to address the policy issues of this problem because many of the solutions will take longer than the term in office for the political leaders. Creating a sense of urgency and focus is vital at this time.

And while we go through the process, drive less, turn off the lights, reuse your towels.


Al Erisman is executive editor of Ethix, which he co-founded in 1998.
He spent 32 years at The Boeing Company, the last 11 as director of technology.
He was selected as a senior technical fellow of The Boeing Company in 1990,
and received his Ph.D. in applied mathematics from Iowa State University.