President Obama’s plan to move quickly to replace fossil fuels with renewable energy sources relies on technology that analysts agree is neither affordable nor available on a commercial scale and won’t be for many years to come.
Expensive, small-scale pilot projects are under way that convert vegetation into fuel for cars and capture carbon dioxide before it is released into the air from coal-burning power plants. But these prototypes have not been proved at levels that would make even a dent in the U.S. appetite for fossil fuels, casting doubt on the viability of the president’s plans.
Still, the administration continues to promote policies that assume that these pilot programs will soon become large-scale projects and is seeking funds to bring that day closer.
“It’s promoting a vision that no one knows what the true cost will be and [whether] these technologies will succeed on a large scale,” said Bryan K. Mignone, a climate and energy analyst at the liberal-leaning Brookings Institution.
“The administration wants a solution fast to the technology problems,” said Nathaniel Greene, director of renewable-energy policy for the Natural Resources Defense Council.
But a solution might not emerge as rapidly as the administration would like. Mr. Greene said energy specialists joke that the “next generation” of biofuels is five years away from commercial use - and has been that way since the 1980s. Despite some promising breakthroughs in ethanol, he said, it will be years before the next-generation fuels are widely available.
It also will be years before commercial-scale “carbon capture and sequestration” technology will be cheap enough to take carbon dioxide from smokestacks and pump it into underground storage sites. The most recent estimates suggest that such technology would not be ready for initial commercial use until 2015 and not widely in use before 2025.
Some critics say the climate legislation drafted by Democrats and pending in the House would kill the push for carbon capture and sequestration by allowing older power plants to buy their way out of upgrading their facilities by purchasing permits to emit higher levels of carbon while using existing technology.
The administration’s stated goal is to end the nation’s dependence on oil from the Middle East and Venezuela by 2020 and to cut greenhouse-gas emissions by 20 percent, or to 1990 levels, by the same year. Next-generation ethanol and carbon capture and sequestration are key to achieving those goals — that is, once the technology is developed.
The administration can force the technology forward and alter carbon methods by sending price signals to polluters, said Daniel J. Weiss, a clean-energy and climate specialist at the liberal Center for American Progress. He said the imposition of a carbon fee would shave years off the time it would take to produce commercial-scale ethanol and carbon-capture technology.
“Right now, there is no incentive for companies to invest in these technologies because it’s free to pollute,” Mr. Weiss said. “Once you put a price on carbon, it creates an economic incentive not to put pollution in the air.”
Nobel Prize-winning economist Paul Krugman said skeptics of the Obama plan appear to lack faith in the capitalist system.
“If you really believe in the magic of the marketplace, you should also believe that the economy can handle emission limits just fine,” the liberal economist wrote recently.
But not everyone thinks the energy plan’s incentives are big enough to create new machines and technologies.
“What the administration is doing is risky, borderline dangerous,” said Kenneth P. Green, an environmental-policy specialist at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative-leaning think tank. “The speed of transition Obama is proposing is certainly not possible, and the technology is not in a state of development that can be scaled up in 10 years; maybe in 20 or 30 years.”
The administration plans, by 2022, to blend 36 billion gallons of ethanol with petroleum to wean the nation off oil and to reduce pollution from cars. But of that total, 16 billion gallons must come from sources that do not exist.
Corn ethanol currently is blended with gasoline, but scientists say corn is only a “gateway” or “bridge” to next-generation biofuels - cellulosic ethanol, which will come from wood, grasses or other nonedible plants - once the refineries are built.
According to the Renewable Fuels Association, the technology to meet the administration’s biofuels goals is “close to being commercially viable,” but ethanol producers still don’t know how much large-scale refineries will cost to build or operate.
Matt Hartwig, a spokesman for the association, said the economic crisis has made it difficult to expand refinery construction, thus making it harder to ramp up biofuel production.
Mr. Obama has instructed the Energy and Agriculture departments to invest in biofuels technologies and refinery construction, but petroleum producers would be required to bear the majority of the costs associated with additional biofuel use. The administration’s plan to cap total carbon emissions and have companies trade permits to pollute could be an answer.
Companies would be required to obtain a credit for each ton of carbon they emit, and fewer permits would be sold each year. Thus, carbon-intensive industries would have to find ways to compete with clean energy.
The administration hopes to foster carbon-capture and ethanol technologies so that they’ll be ready for commercial use in a shorter amount of time and cost polluters less in fees. The House’s pending climate-change bill contains incentives and funding for wide-scale commercial deployment of carbon capture and sequestration. The Energy Department plans to spend $656.5 million in economic-stimulus money to construct advanced biofuel refineries this fiscal year and an additional $133.5 million next year.
But skeptics say that the science cannot be rushed. Some also assert that Mr. Obama has confused being hopeful with being confident that technology will deliver the results within his preferred time frame.
“I think Obama is genuinely deceived by his own rhetoric,” Mr. Green said. “He thinks if you say, ‘We can’ often enough, then it will magically happen.”