Calling for a Marshall Plan, not a Manhattan Project

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Electricity too cheap to meter.  For many renewable energy advocates, that is the holy grail… new technology which will not only solve the problem of carbon emissions, but be so transformative that we no longer have to worry about turning off the lights when we leave the room.

We could argue for days about the viability of any such technology, be it cold fusion, hydrogen, or photovoltaic nanodots.  I personally have strong opinions about the likelihood of any technology to produce energy so cheaply that it would not make sense to use some mechanism like price to ensure that it is used productively.

We could argue about that, but it would be the wrong argument.  The time we have to act to confront Climate Change is much shorter than the time it takes to develop and implement new technologies.  Even if photovoltaic nanodots achieve their early promise, they will take decades to reach large scale availability.

New technology will be too late to save us from Climate Change.  The longer we wait to make real reductions in carbon emissions, the more drastic those cuts will have to be.

Marshalling our Energy

Much more (and sooner) than we need new technology, we need to implement the technology we have today.  The good news for all of us is it is much easier to pick well-run companies in established industries than it is to decide which new technology will produce the promised manna from heaven.  Rather than politicians and investors trying to pick which hot new technology we should back, we should look at existing technology 

If we’re truly serious about tackling Climate Change today, we will let next year’s technology take care of itself, and spend our efforts implementing the very effective technologies we have today.

Many Renewable Energy advocates and scientists are calling for a new energy Manhattan Project.  That’s the wrong metaphor.  Instead, we need a Marshall Plan for Energy.  Much more than new scientific resources, we need to leverage our financial and organizational resources to get the needed projects on the ground today.

Here is what we can do with current technology in North America today to fight climate change: 

  1. Build a continent-wide High Voltage DC grid along the interstate corridors to bring Concentrating Solar Power from the Southwest and Wind Power from the Great Plains to the rest of the country, and balance demand across the continent, lowering the need for new peak capacity.

  2. Never build another building that does not include all economic energy efficiency upgrades.

  3. Change the incentive structure to reward everyone for driving less, not more.

  4. Invest in our public transit systems.

  5. Implement continent-wide smart grid and metering to better manage the fluctuations of renewable energy sources, give people information about the energy they are using, and time-based pricing to better align supply and demand.

  6. Never build another exurb.  Encourage infill and denser growth that allow people more travel options.

That’s my Marshall Plan.  Every one of those items will save more money for society than it will cost.  Some are complete win-wins, others will produce more winners than losers.

When we’ve done those six things, we’ll have technology which can take us the rest of the way.  Those technologies (Wind Power, CSP, PV, Biomass electricity, Plug-in hybrids or Electric vehicles) already exist, and require only incremental improvement and deployment.  We’ll have a lot less far to go, and the improved infrastructure will make any new technology easier to implement.


  1. Nice post Tom.
    Appreciate your call for a national grid so we can ship carbon free electrons around the country.
    Let’s hope the next President does for transmission what President Eisenhower did for highways. There is no perfect solution but using our abundant solar wind and geothermal resources to achieve rapid decarbonization is a large step in the right direction!!
    Thanks Leslie. It’s always good to know my friends are reading, too. -Tom


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