Machine Design

Energy and hot air

As we finished up the annual energy-technology issue, politicians sniped at each other about how to raise the debt ceiling for the U. S. government. So it seems appropriate to weigh in on two aspects of government spending related to energy that will be affected by whatever deal our legislators eventually settle on.

First there is ARPA-E, for Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy. Modeled after the Pentagon’s Darpa (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency), ARPA-E funds energy research projects that are really “out there” — based on breakthrough ideas that are promising but too far away from commercial reality to interest hedge funds or venture capital. Apparently ARPA-E has done a good job in its roughly two years of existence. All told, it has sent $363 million to 121 projects, of which about 40% are at universities, another third at start-up companies, 20% at large companies, and the rest to national labs and nonprofits.

Six projects it funded with $23.4 million in grants have now received more than $100 million in venture capital. They include one covered by our sister publication, Energy Efficiency & Technology: A new evaporative cooling scheme for commercial air conditioning that could cut the energy use by 70%. Another ARPA-E project that has attracted VC money is one that stores energy generated by intermittent renewable sources in the form of compressed air blown into underground salt caverns. The compressed air would power turbines when electricity is needed.

But though ARPA-E looks to the future with technologies that could be game-changers, government funding for high-speed passenger rail lines seems rooted in the past. Back when cities consisted of a central commercial district surrounded by residential areas, rail lines for commuters made sense. But that period began to end around 1930. Today, of course, businesses and factories are as likely to sit in suburbs as downtown. Researchers tell us that commuting back and forth to work now only accounts for 17% of the personal trips most people take. (And this is probably overstated, because people often combine personal trips with commuting to their jobs.) Consequently, passenger rail lines are likely to break even in only a few densely populated areas in the U. S.

Nor are the environmental costs of rail compelling compared with alternatives. Estimates of CO2 emissions/rider for cars, buses, planes, and trains have found that bus travel is the least polluting. Trains are only less polluting than cars in these comparisons by assuming the cars in question each have only one rider and by assuming the trains are filled to capacity. Load a car up with four riders and its CO2 emissions are about 60% of those of a full train when figuring things per rider.

That brings us back to the horse trading that characterizes the budget battles surrounding the U. S. debt ceiling. In the eyes of the average legislator, funds spent on ARPA-E and on high-speed rail are roughly the same: They are both things for which a politician can take credit when funds get spent in his or her district. Whether or not they are effective is beside the point. That may seem like a strange way to formulate an energy policy. That’s because it is.

— Leland Teschler, Editor

© 2011 Penton Media, Inc.

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