June 14, 2010

This Weekend's News: Innovation

I am attending an all-day workshop tomorrow on how economic power, technology and innovation play into national security. The advance prep for the group includes about 125 pages of readings on these subjects, which may indicate why I gravitated to a few stories of clean energy advances while catching up on the news this weekend.

Last week EADS test-flew a small plane on 100 percent algae-based fuel at the Berlin Air Show – a departure from previous tests to date by the Navy, Air Force and private companies of biofuel/petroleum blends. According to recent tests in certain aircraft, this fuel appears to be 5-10 percent more energy efficient in some circumstances.

The state of Hawaii is moving forward with environmental impact studies of the proposed undersea cables linking new wind power generation on less-populated islands with Oahu – a project much-discussed at PACOM when we last visited. The study will cost $2.9 million, the cable would cost an estimated $1 billion, and by displacing 12 percent of Oahu’s currently coal- and oil-fired electricity, would make a dent in the $6 billion per year Hawaii spends on imported oil.

CNET and other outlets also covered the Shanghai Expo 2010’s exhibition of the YeZ, a carbon-eating concept car. Developed by the Shanghai Automotive Industry Corporation, GM and Volkswagen, this two-seater is powered by solar and wind, sucks CO2 out of the air and releases oxygen, and uses lithium ion batteries to store the energy it produces. It is worth a glance at this vehicle, as you can’t help thinking: would I drive this? I don’t drive most days, and most of the miles I log are trips to the grocery store (there is no trunk or storage area visible here), and driving through the mountains of Pennsylvania on trips to visit my fellow Parthemores in Ohio (this vehicle is open-air, and doesn’t appear to have a windshield). I know my auto uses are atypical, but I do wonder what this kind of car design would work well for that could not also be accommodated by biking or public transit. But then again, that may be beside the point. Normally the best things to come away from these kinds of projects are discreet innovations that can be widely adopted. Perhaps the wind turbine wheels or solar technology in the roof can be geared for use in the existing vehicle fleet – and before the 2030 date of production the YeZ carries?

These are positive developments. Innovation (particularly in energy) is often treated nowadays as simply a means of producing economic growth. But it is of course more than that; it is the route to maintaining technical military advantages and to global leadership, and an important area of international cooperation. As the National Security Strategy states: “Reaffirming America’s role as the global engine of scientific discovery and technological innovation has never been more critical…the nation that leads the world in building a clean energy economy will enjoy a substantial economic and security advantage.”

The Week Ahead

At 9 a.m. Monday CAP holds “America Over a Barrel: Reducing Our Oil Dependence.” The Stimson Center is also holding a book discussion on Cleo Paskal’s “Global Warring” at 10. Tuesday at 9:30 a.m. the House Energy and Commerce Committee holds a hearing on "Drilling Down On America's Energy Future: Safety, Security And Clean Energy." At 2:30, the Senate Energy & Natural Resources Committee is holding hearings on a series of energy bills. For your couch-surfing pleasure, Tuesday night President Obama will address the nation regarding the Gulf oil spill, and announce next steps for containing the damage and compensating victims. On Thursday, the Middle East Institute is doing an event called “Gulf Carbon Trading: How to Develop It and Why It Makes Sense” at noon. Last but not least, CNAS’s conference on the U.S.-Japan alliance runs from Thursday afternoon through Friday, and has a little something for everyone; sign up here and join us at the Willard!