Commentary: Cash prizes won't solve our energy problems

  • 16 July 2008
  • From New Scientist Print Edition. Subscribe and get 4 free issues.
  • Lawrence Krauss

THE late Senator Everett Dirksen reputedly once said: "A billion here, a billion there, and pretty soon you are talking real money." I wonder what he would say about John McCain's proposal to offer a $300 million government-sponsored prize to anyone who invents a new type of car battery at 30 per cent of the cost of today's batteries. Is this real money?

Not if this prize is McCain's main idea for breaking America's dependency on oil. If the country's energy problems could be solved for $300 million, they would not be problems. Energy is a multibillion-dollar business; private conglomerates could easily raise $300 million if they thought they could make a substantial return on their investment in a reasonable period. In reality, making the necessary changes will take more money and time than private industry alone can afford.

Moreover, $300 million is a drop in the bucket compared with what the US government is currently paying to support the carbon economy, such as subsidies to oil and gas companies, which are estimated to run to around $250 billion a year. By comparison, the US Department of Energy is funding the research and development of vehicle energy storage to the tune of just $50 million a year. True, McCain's $300 million prize would represent six years' worth of this funding, but it would be provided "after the fact" and would not support what is most desperately needed, which is longer-term R&D. Cutting the cost of making batteries will need serious investment in new materials and manufacturing methods.

McCain's proposal is off the mark for another reason: new car battery technologies are only a part of the challenge of converting the transportation fleet from hydrocarbons to electricity. A large fleet of electric vehicles will need adequate supplies of electricity for recharging. This will require large-scale facilities for generating and storing electrical energy. It will mean reorganising the grid and finding ways of distributing electricity without the need to transport it over long distances. In terms of infrastructure and cost, these challenges may dwarf the invention of new batteries.

From a broader perspective, the notion that you can spur dramatic new technological and scientific advances by offering a one-off prize fails to account for how science and technology actually develop. The X Prize Foundation's competitions for various aerospace endeavours have captured public attention, but these are geared towards specific and immediate engineering problems and require a relatively modest investment from competing teams. Transformative, fundamental research generally requires government support, not only because of the large amount of money involved but also because of the time frame: it can take a generation for research to translate into a product, and most private companies cannot afford to wait that long for an investment to pay off. Furthermore, breakthroughs are not always predictable and often come out of unexpected areas, as with the transistor, for example, or penicillin.

Private companies cannot afford to wait a generation for an investment to pay off

McCain's decision to join the fight for a cleaner world is a new departure for him. Throughout his Senate career he has consistently voted against imposing higher vehicle fuel-efficiency standards. In 2007 he received a zero score from the lobby group the League of Conservation Voters as the only member of Congress to skip every crucial environmental vote.

$300 million is a prize at a new level, but like large lottery pay-outs it is a disingenuous way of funding something that the government should be funding anyway. If McCain or anyone else really thinks this is an effective method to buy our way out of our transportation problems, why not a prize for curing cancer or AIDS, or even for finding a unified field theory? Clearly it makes more sense to strive for these goals by developing real R&D programmes. Solving difficult problems requires dedicated effort, perhaps over generations. It's hard to see McCain's proposal as anything other than an election stunt.

From issue 2665 of New Scientist magazine, 16 July 2008, page 49