Count on Energy Problems

Our energy problems will not go away—at least in our lifetimes. Our dependence on foreign oil is too great and our political process too weak to permit mobilizing solutions. It is virtually impossible to develop domestic oil fields, increase refineries, build dams, construct power plants, lay pipelines, string high power lines, open coalmines, dispose of depleted uranium, and the like.

Industrial and commercial growth has always demanded more energy. We have seen it here, and we are starting to see it in developing countries. China by itself is going to be a massive user of energy—even bigger than the United States. India is going to add to the problems.

These developing countries are just at the forefront of people being able to enjoy the mobility of automobile ownership. I can remember being in both China and the former Soviet Union in the 1980s. Then the only cars on the streets were those of high level officials and the streets were nearly empty. Now the major cities have some reasonable amount of traffic. It will not be long until urban areas start having traffic jams. There will be more competition for the mid eastern oil supplies as well as those from all over the world. Do you think that is going to reduce the price of oil?

Of course, conservation will help, but the implementation is slow and often costly. High efficiency furnaces have numerous sensors and more parts than lower efficiency units and take more maintenance. Hybrid automobiles still have a long way to go to justify their additional costs even at today’s gasoline prices. One of the more cost-effective changes has been in home insulation requirements, but the trend to much larger homes trumps the efficiency gains.

For a number of years, Boeing had a focus on helping this nation with its energy problems more directly than just more fuel efficient airplanes. This had its origin with George Stoner, a Boeing vice president and very forward looking person who also got Boeing into the space business. We formed a new company, and the chairman asked me to head it. I reported to a special board that, in turn, reported to the chairman.

Our mission was to help the country solve the energy problems that we saw at the time. Twenty-five years have passed since then and the problems that we foresaw have deepened. Part of this is a political problem, but most of it is simply the result of more people and more affluence, not just in this country but worldwide. Either more people or more affluence by themselves would increase the demand for energy, but we have both. This causes a compounding demand for conventional and easily obtained natural resources. However, these resources have a finite limit and practical restraints on their extraction.

Our company’s research work was spread over many technologies from generating electrical power with solar cells to nuclear power improvements. Our developmental work was funded mostly by the federal government with some help from private Boeing and energy company funds. During my tenure, we had lots of exciting projects.

We built the largest windmills ever made. They had blades the size of a football field. We installed several of these experimental units in the windiest parts of the country. Though the technology was successful, commercialization was impractical because of the cost relative to oil or gas and because windmills do not produce power when the wind does not blow—even in the windiest parts of the country. Therefore, windmills often require energy storage facilities which are another expense and not always practical.

We worked with producers of solar power cells to make improvements, both in reducing the unit costs of the cells as well as alternative ways of using the cells including focusing the solar energy and maneuvering the arrays to follow the sun. We worked on projects that varied from home roof top units to acres of cells for utility companies. None proved practical although we were able to use some of the technology in our company’s space programs. Dust and rain do not degrade the sensors in space vehicles. They can see the sun twenty-four hours a day. The power requirements are relatively small. And high costs are tolerable in space applications.

We had projects that tried to exploit hydrocarbon technologies even going back to one of the earliest coal gasification projects in Scotland. We looked at lower cost ways to extract oil from tar sands. We did the systems engineering on the deepest oil platform in the North Sea for the British National Petroleum Company and others including an oil platform that had to withstand the shifting sea-bottom sediment in the Mississippi delta for Shell Oil. We did the engineering for the offshore gas wells in the loneliest spot in the world, the seas off the west coast of Australia. We managed the Strategic Petroleum Reserve for the Department of Energy. We built water treatment equipment for many of the western coal fired generating plants in the west. We invested in trash separation and burning. Our van fleet ran on natural gas.

We had extensive efforts in nuclear power projects. Under contract to the Department of Energy we compared the French breeder reactor to the Westinghouse design. We participated in research on the glassification of nuclear waste. Our construction unit, together with other large contractors, worked on nuclear power plants and fuel processing. We developed centrifuge enrichment machines for the national facilities at Oakridge, Tennessee.

We worked on hydroelectric projects. We developed and built the power control system for the Bonneville dams. We did research work on more efficient ways to transmit high-voltage electricity including cryogenic means. And we studied harnessing energy from the ocean tides and other areas I’ve now forgotten.

We explored the use of hydrogen as a commercial energy source because we knew a lot about it from our space work on hydrogen powered rockets. We concluded that the practical problems of handling hydrogen would make it economically infeasible unless the cost of other forms of energy would increase many fold. Promoters of hydrogen power show little understanding of the real problems with hydrogen. This is a very dangerous gas, and it is not free. It takes energy to produce hydrogen. It takes more energy to transport it. And it takes incredibly sophisticated equipment to use it. In gaseous and liquid form, pumps, valves and piping have to be ultra clean, pressure vessels extraordinarily well protected, and users highly trained.

Boeing’s efforts lost motivation after George Stoner died and I left and took on a bigger job of running the majority of Boeing’s military and space work. It was a time when the nuclear industry was taking a beating, the Washington Power Supply System’s bonds failed, and our Board of Directors, which included some prominent oil industry executives, decided that the opportunities for Boeing in the energy business were small compared to airplane, military and space efforts. It was also a time when our commercial airplane company needed cash and our military space and arm was tripling in size.

I know first hand many of the problems that alternative energy sources face. It is not pretty. Biomass and alcohol will offer some relief, but this will not come cheap and is subject to climatic changes and agricultural subsidies. We can get some energy from the wind and maybe some from the sun that will reduce hydrocarbon burning, but these are partial, not total solutions. Few people realize the practicalities of getting good sites and storing the energy when the wind is not blowing or the sun not shining.

The countries that are basing their basic power supplies on nuclear power plants are going to have far fewer problems with uninterrupted and predictable power costs than countries like our own. It is my judgment that the generation of those who blindly opposed nuclear power with roadblock after roadblock will ultimately be replaced by those who see nuclear power as the primary answer to the earth’s greenhouse effects and its subsequent warming. Then the long process of building can begin. Until then, look to many periods with energy shortages and high prices that will add to economic woes.

Our political inertia is going to be a drag on practical new energy sources for generations of time.