Power Q&A: Joe Romm

The author of The Hype About Hydrogen on the absurdity of electric pencil sharpeners, why concentrated solar thermal is promising, and which stocks he’d invest a million dollars in

Mother Jones: What’s the biggest impediment to the development of new energy sources?

Joseph Romm: The failure to price all the externalities: air pollution, greenhouse gas emissions, what it costs this country to import 60 percent of our oil from unstable regions. We’re enriching countries in the Middle East and Russia and Nigeria and Venezuela, and sending hundreds of billions of dollars overseas, and we build a military to defend ourselves in the Persian Gulf. None of that is valued in energy. We have a shortsighted approach to energy economics, whereas what you need to do is look at lifecycle costs.

MJ: What new source do you consider most promising?

JR: Concentrated solar thermal. Fundamentally, you’re just using mirrors to reflect light onto a fluid that you heat up and use to run a steam boiler. One of its big advantages is that you can heat a fluid that has a big thermal mass, a molten salt that will hold onto its heat, so you can actually generate power for six to eight hours after the sun goes down, so your solar power looks a lot more like base-load power. I think this will be a major contributor to clean energy around the world in the coming 10 to 20 years.

MJ: And the most overhyped?

JR: Hydrogen fuel-cell cars. Hydrogen is a lousy transportation fuel because it’s a gas. Transportation fuels typically have a high energy density so you can transport and store them easily, and hydrogen isn’t like that. Fuel cells are very expensive and hydrogen-fueling stations are pretty scarce—it would cost a lot of money to build a lot of them. I think the stock market has rendered its judgment, and outside of the Bush administration, parts of California, and a couple die-hards in auto companies, I don’t think anyone seriously believes that people will be driving fuel-cell cars for decades.

MJ: What about you? Where would you invest it if you had a million bucks?

JR: If I were trying to reduce pollution I would put almost all of it into energy efficiency, because that pays for itself and lowers people’s energy bill. In the stock market? Well, photovoltaics companies are pretty highly valued, but I think there’s good reason to be optimistic about some PV companies. I might also put it into people who make advanced batteries; I think with plug-in hybrids, the demand for advanced lithium-ion batteries is going to be quite high in the coming 10 to 20 years.


MJ: What’s your favorite personal energy-saving tip?

JR: Screen savers on people’s computers are a tremendous waste of energy. At the very least you should turn the monitor off. In colder climates the smartest thing to do is wrap your water heater. That has a very fast payback.

MJ: What kind of car do you drive?

JR: The Prius. I don’t think anyone has built a hybrid that comes close when it comes to fuel efficiency.

MJ: And when do you think we’ll see the last gas-powered Hummer?

JR: When will it become as unacceptable as smoking? I suspect around the 2020s.

MJ: Speaking of smoking, would you rather live next to a coal-fired power plant or a nuclear one?

JR: [long sigh] It’s a toughie. I would say if I have to live downwind of one and they’re both well managed, I’d choose the nuclear plant. If they’re not well managed, I think the question is almost unanswerable.

MJ: Do you have any guilty pleasures in terms of energy use?

JR: I have a big-screen TV, but it’s one of those LCD things, and it has an EnergyStar sticker on it. For Christmas my wife wanted a digital photoframe—in the old days you had one photo up and it didn’t use any energy and now we have this little flat-panel screen that cycles through pictures of my daughter. At least it’s not as bad as an electric pencil sharpener, which is the most absurd of all. I take longer showers, but then again, I have a photovoltaic system and a solar-thermal hot water system, so I don’t feel bad.

MJ: Right, but you’re hardly typical. What will it take to get renewables into the mainstream?

JR: The major candidates are all for control of carbon emissions, so we’re going to have a price on carbon in a few years. With a new Congress and a new president, we may get a renewable portfolio standard nationwide. Wind has entered the realm of a real major-energy provider, and everyone tells me that in two to three years, China will be the No. 1 manufacturer of wind turbines and photovoltaics, so presumably that will keep costs coming down. I expect a combination of high energy prices, serious action on global warming, and a continued drop in price will all combine to make renewables mainstream.

MJ: What policies should our next president try to enact right away?

JR: Certainly cap-and-trade would be No. 1. We need to raise fuel-economy standards. I’m a fan of renewable portfolio standard. We are grossly underspending in technology development and deployment. The entire DOE budget for energy R&D is maybe $3 billion, whereas the nation’s energy bill is $1 trillion—if we spent 1 percent of the energy bill on developing and deploying efficient technologies, that would triple our spending. Given the scale of the energy problem and the scale of the climate problem, it’s absurd we’re being so penny wise, pound foolish.



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