Solutions to the Energy Problem

Henry K. Hebeler


Let me qualify myself, lest any readers be misled. I am not in the energy business, nor do I invest in energy related stocks other than that they may be in the broad market indexes I use for investments.

I do have some experience in the energy field. For three years I headed Boeing’s venture into energy before I was named as President of Boeing Aerospace Company. In that venture, we built the world’s largest wind mills and developed and built Bonneville Power’s electronic control system. We worked on a broad front of energy research projects, many sponsored by the Department of Energy, including various programs for solar energy, coal gasification, nuclear waste disposal including glassification, oil shale, tar sands, geothermal systems, nuclear fuel processing, wave power, stream turbines, cryogenic power line transmission and many other things. Boeing was contracted to compare the French breeder reactor with the Westinghouse design. We formed a successful joint venture with El Paso Natural Gas and Reading and Bates to build equipment to reduce pollutants from coal fired power plants. We managed the Strategic Petroleum Reserve. We designed the world’s deepest off shore oil jacket for the British National Oil Company. We did construction work on nuclear power plants, fuel processing plants at Hanford, dams, and other energy facilities. We developed and built centrifuges for uranium enrichment at Oak Ridge. Boeing used natural gas to fuel its fleet of vans, installed energy efficient lighting in its buildings, converted waste to energy and had a farm in Boardman, OR, to experiment with converting waste to more fertile soil. In light of today’s problems, it’s unfortunate that we had to abandon the energy field because Boeing needed massive engineering and financial resources for its then forthcoming military, space and commercial airplane fields.

But there is another aspect of my qualifications that you should know. I was one of the first employees on the Minuteman Ballistic Missile System and subsequently headed the systems engineering group at Boeing. The Minuteman project was the largest program ever undertaken by the Defense Department. Our Boeing group was responsible for identifying and planning for every piece of equipment and the associated manpower and skills needed to support the missile. The total of these dwarfed the investment in the missile itself. There were underground facilities to command and protect the missile, transport vehicles to be developed, cable systems for communications, extraordinary security considerations, safety analysis including those for the unauthorized and inadvertent launch of the missile. All of this had to be time phased, contracted out to developers and manufacturers and progress monitored. And it all had to be done under an affordable cost profile.

In my view, the off-hand statements by politicians running for office about what they will do to solve the energy problem are very naïve. Their pronouncements completely lack any perspective of what real development takes in terms of time, infrastructure development, total costs and source of funds.

Having two degrees in aeronautics from MIT and having gone through a couple of wind turbine development programs and suffered through trying to find sites that have steady winds and are acceptable to communities and the Audubon Society, I know enough about wind power to be dangerous. Nevertheless, when you start talking about major wind power networks, two of the most formidable problems are energy storage and transmission. The wind doesn’t blow all of the time and current machines are notoriously failure prone. This means that you have to either store the energy somehow or just use it to supplement, not eliminate, other power sources. Further, since the machines are distributed at what are presumed to be good wind sites and not near coal, gas or nuclear power plants, substantial investment is needed for transmission lines, transformers and other support systems—and approval of new corridors is a major undertaking of its own. Then there is the problem of funding the projects. Public funding is difficult and time consuming whether coming from a legislature or from public bond issues. Overruns are very common in this business, and getting money to cover them is slow and frustrating when dealing with the public. Add environmental and permitting concerns to your list of problems that must be solved long before the systems can be funded.

Wind power is certainly not at the top of the list of potential energy solutions needing substantial systems analysis. Nuclear may sound bad, but it and coal fired plants probably are the easier ones to implement because we and others have done those before. Hydrogen gas powered plants may top the list of those with system difficulties followed closely by shale oil and solar power. But there is nothing that doesn’t require a total system and economic analysis to make a judgment about preferred solutions and phasing with extensions of existing power sources in the meantime.

I’m not talking about organizing a Congressional committee to do this. I’m talking about a well-organized group of competent technical and analytical people for each of the potential energy alternatives. Each would have to bear the test of market realities both in regard to obtaining front end funds as well as all money required to reach successful implementation in competition with other alternatives and expansion of our current sources. Each would have to work out all of the infrastructure required, time phase the work, obtain funding, issue contracts, monitor progress, complete the project, and leave in place an operating support system.

Getting better fuel efficient transportation may be easier than getting alternative power plants, but those who talk about plug-in charging systems or hydrogen gas are ignoring the fact that this will require lots more power plants. Those that propose biomass for fuel will have to consider the impact of the fuel source on other parts of the economy and environment. Those that gain efficiency by using batteries to supplement gasoline will sometime have to reconcile the lifecycle costs with other alternatives. It may be very difficult to sell a car that has only a short time until the battery has to be replaced at a cost of five to ten thousand dollars or more. Safety is a MAJOR issue with hydrogen gas, so users will face large insurance bills as well as find it will take many years before a distribution system develops.

When candidates start relating to the real world instead of headlines and one-liners, I’ll have more faith that we will be able to accomplish some things that will leave us some financially competitive supplements and possible replacement for use of current fossil and nuclear fuel plants.