Oversight hearing on sustainable, low emission, electricity generation

Full Committee Hearing

Date & Time Tuesday, April 27 2004 10:00 AM Dirksen 366

Witness: Dr. Richard E. Smalley , Director , Carbon Nanotechnology Laboratory, Rice University

Testimony of R. E. Smalley to the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources; Hearing on sustainable , low emission, electricity generation, April 27, 2004

I appreciate the opportunity today to testify to your committee on this most important of issues.

We are heading into a new energy world. With economic recovery in the countries of the OECD and rapid development of China and soon India, huge new demands will be placed on the world oil and gas industry. Yet oil production will probably peak worldwide sometime within this decade, and the future capacity of natural gas production is unclear. Coal will be able to pick up some of the slack, but with current technology this will amplify the threat of massive climate change.

Energy is at the core of virtually every problem facing humanity. We cannot afford to get this wrong. We should be skeptical of optimism that the existing energy industry will be able to work this out on its own.

Somehow we must find the basis for energy prosperity for ourselves and the rest of humanity for the 21st century. By the middle of this century we should assume we will need to at least double world energy production from its current level, with most of this coming from some clean, sustainable, CO2-free source. For worldwide peace and prosperity it needs to be cheap.

We simply cannot do this with current technology. We will need revolutionary breakthroughs to even get close.

Oil was the principal driver of our economic prosperity in the 20th century. It is possible that Mother Nature has played a great trick on us, and we will never find another energy source that is as cheap and wonderful as oil. If so, this new century is certain to be very unpleasant.

However, I am an American scientist brought up in the Midwest during the Sputnik era, and like so many of my colleagues in the US and worldwide, I am a technological optimist. I think we can do it. We can find “the New Oil”, the new technology that provides the massive clean energy necessary for advanced civilization of the 10 billion souls we expect to be living on this planet by 2050. With luck we’ll find this soon enough to avoid the terrorism, war, and human misery that will otherwise ensue.

Electricity is the key. As we leave oil as our dominant energy technology, we will not only evolve away from a wonderful primary energy source, but we will also leave behind our principal means of transporting energy over vast distances. By 2050 we will do best if we do this transportation of energy not as oil, or coal, or natural gas, or even hydrogen. We should not be transmitting energy as mass at all. Instead we should transport energy as pure energy itself.

Consider, for example, a vast interconnected electrical energy grid for the North American Continent from above the Artic Circle to below the Panama Canal. By 2050 this grid will interconnect several hundred million local sites. There are two key aspects of this future grid that will make a huge difference: (1) massive long distance electrical power transmission, and (2) local storage of electrical power with real time pricing.

Storage of electrical power is critical for stability and robustness of the electrical power grid, and it is absolutely essential if we are ever to use solar and wind as our dominant primary power source. The best place to provide this storage is locally, near the point of use. Imagine by 2050 that every house, every business, every building has its own local electrical energy storage device, an uninterruptible power supply capable of handling the entire needs of the owner for 24 hours. Since the devices are small, and relatively inexpensive, the owners can replace them with new models every 5 years or so as worldwide technological innovation and free enterprise continuously and rapidly develop improvements in this most critical of all aspects of the electrical energy grid. Today using lead-acid storage batteries, such a unit for a typical house to store 100 kilowatt hours of electrical energy would take up a small room and cost over $10,000. Through revolutionary advances in nanotechnology, it may be possible to shrink an equivalent unit to the size of a washing machine, and drop the cost to less than $1,000. Since the amount of energy stored is relatively small, there are many technologies that are being considered. One is a flow battery with a liquid electrolyte based on salts of vanadium. Another features a reversible hydrogen fuel cell which electrolyzes water to make hydrogen when it stores energy, then uses this hydrogen to make electricity as it is needed. Another uses advanced flywheels. With intense research and entrepreneural effort, many schemes are likely to be developed over the years to supply this local energy storage market that may expand to several billion units worldwide.

With these advances the electrical grid can become exceedingly robust, since local storage protects customers from power fluxuations and outages. With real-time pricing, the local customers have incentive to take power from the grid when it is cheapest. This in turn permits the primary electrical energy providers to deliver their power to the grid when it is most efficient for them to do so, and vastly reduce the requirements for reserve capacity to follow peaks in demand. Most importantly, it permits a large portion — or even all — of the primary electrical power on the grid to come from solar and wind.

The other critical innovation needed is massive electrical power transmission over continental distances, permitting, for example, hundreds of gigawatts of electrical power to be transported from solar farms in New Mexico to markets in New England. Now all primary power producers can compete with little concern for the actual distance to market. Clean coal plants in Wyoming, stranded gas in Alaska, wind farms in North Dakota, hydroelectric power from northern British Columbia, biomass energy from Mississippi, nuclear power from Hanford Washington, and solar power from the vast western deserts, etc., remote power plants from all over the continent contribute power to consumers thousands of miles away on the grid. Everybody plays. Nanotechnology in the form of single-walled carbon nanotubes (a.k.a. “buckytubes”) forming what we call the Armchair Quantum Wire may play a big role in this new electrical transmission system.

Such innovations in power transmission, power storage, and the massive primary power generation technologies themselves, will come from miraculous discoveries in science together with free enterprise in open competition for huge worldwide markets.

It would be useful to have these discoveries now.

America, the land of technological optimists, the land of Thomas Edison, should take the lead. We should launch a bold New Energy Research Program. Just a nickel from every gallon of gasoline, diesel, fuel oil, and jet fuel would generate $10 billion a year. That would be enough to transform the physical sciences and engineering in this country. After five years we should increase the funding to a dime per gallon. Sustained year after year, this New Energy Research Program will inspire a new Sputnik Generation of American scientists and engineers. At minimum it will generate a cornucopia of new technologies that will drive wealth and job creation in our country. At best we will solve the energy problem within this next generation; solve it for ourselves and, by example, solve it for the rest of humanity on this planet.

Give a nickel. Save the world.