lamar alexander

The overwhelming challenge today . . . is to discover ways to satisfy the human demand for and use of energy in an environmentally satisfactory and affordable way so that we are not overly dependent on overseas sources.





A New Manhattan Project for Clean Energy Independence

Seven “grand challenges” for the next five years: plug-in electric cars and trucks, carbon capture, solar power, nuclear waste, advanced biofuels, green buildings, and fusion

(The following is an address given May 9 to about 200 senior scientists and managers of Oak Ridge National Laboratory plus members of the press.)

by Lamar Alexander

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In 1942, President Franklin D. Roosevelt asked Senator Kenneth McKellar, the Tennessean who chaired the Appropriations Committee, to hide $2 billion in the appropriations bill for a secret project to win World War II.

Senator McKellar replied, “Mr. President, I have just one question: where in Tennessee do you want me to hide it?”

That place in Tennessee turned out to be Oak Ridge, one of three secret cities that became the principal sites for the Manhattan Project.

The purpose of the Manhattan Project was to find a way to split the atom and build a bomb before Germany could. Nearly 200,000 people worked secretly in 30 different sites in three countries. President Roosevelt’s $2 billion appropriation would be $24 billion today.

According to New York Times science reporter William Laurence, “Into [the bomb’s] design went millions of man-hours of what is without doubt the most concentrated intellectual effort in history.”

The Goal: Victory over Blackmail

I propose that the United States launch a new Manhattan project: a five-year project to put America firmly on the path to clean energy independence.

Instead of ending a war, the goal will be clean energy independence — so that we can deal with rising gasoline prices, electricity prices, clean air, climate change, and national security — for our country first, and, because other countries have the same urgent needs and therefore will adopt our ideas, for the rest of the world.

By independence I do not mean that the United States would never buy oil from Mexico or Canada or Saudi Arabia. By independence I mean that the United States could never be held hostage by any country for our energy needs.

In 1942, many were afraid that the first country to build an atomic bomb could blackmail the rest of the world. Today, countries that supply oil and natural gas can blackmail the rest of the world.

Not a New Idea

A new Manhattan Project is not a new idea, but it is a good idea and fits the goal of clean energy independence.

The Apollo Program to send men to the moon in the 1960s was a kind of Manhattan Project. Presidential candidates John McCain and Barack Obama have called for a Manhattan Project for new energy sources. So have former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean, and Senators Susan Collins of Maine and Kit Bond of Missouri, among others.

And, throughout the two years of discussion that led to the passage in 2007 of the America COMPETES Act, several participants suggested that focusing on energy independence would force the kind of investments in the physical sciences and research that the United States needs to maintain its competitiveness.

A New Overwhelming Challenge

The overwhelming challenge in 1942 was the prospect that Germany would build the bomb and win the war before America did.

The overwhelming challenge today, according to National Academy of Sciences president Ralph Cicerone in his address last week to the academy’s annual meeting, is to discover ways to satisfy the human demand for and use of energy in an environmentally satisfactory and affordable way so that we are not overly dependent on overseas sources.

Cicerone estimates that this year Americans will pay $500 billion overseas for oil — that’s $1,600 for each one of us — some of it to nations that are hostile or even trying to kill us by bankrolling terrorists. Sending $500 billion abroad weakens our dollar. It is half our trade deficit. It is forcing gasoline prices toward $4 a gallon and crushing family budgets.

Then there are the environmental consequences. If worldwide energy usage continues to grow as it has, humans will inject as much CO2 into the air from fossil fuel burning between 2000 and 2030 as they did between 1850 and 2000. There is plenty of coal to help achieve our energy independence, but there is no commercial way (yet) to capture and store the carbon from so much coal burning — and we have not finished the job of controlling sulfur, nitrogen, and mercury emissions.

The Manhattan Project Model Today

In addition to the need to meet an overwhelming challenge, other characteristics of the original Manhattan Project are suited to this new challenge:

I said to the National Academies when we first asked for their help on the America COMPETES Act in 2005, “In Washington, D.C., most ideas fail for lack of the idea.”

The America COMPETES Model, Too

There are some lessons, too, from America COMPETES.

Remember how it happened. Just three years ago, in May 2005, a bipartisan group of us asked the National Academies to tell Congress in order of priority the 10 most important steps we could take to help America keep its brainpower advantage.

By October, the Academies had assembled a “small diverse group of great minds” chaired by Norm Augustine that presented to Congress and to the President 20 specific recommendations in a report called “Rising Above the Gathering Storm.” We considered proposals by other competitiveness commissions.

Then, in January 2006, President Bush outlined his American Competitiveness Initiative to double over 10 years basic research budgets for the physical sciences and engineering. The Republican and Democratic Senate leaders and 68 other senators sponsored the legislation. It became law by August 2007, with strong support from Speaker Pelosi and the President.

Not Elected to Take a Vacation This Year

Combining the model of the Manhattan Project with the process of the America COMPETES Act has already begun. The National Academies have underway an “America’s Energy Future” project that will be completed in 2010. Ralph Cicerone has welcomed sitting down with a bipartisan group to discuss what concrete proposals we might offer earlier than that to the new president and the new Congress. Energy Secretary Sam Bodman and Ray Orbach, the Energy Department’s Under Secretary for Science, have said the same.

The presidential candidates seem ready. There is bipartisan interest in Congress. Congressman Bart Gordon, Democratic Chairman of the Science Committee in the House of Representatives — one of the original four signers of the 2005 request to the National Academies that led to the America COMPETES Act — is here today to offer his ideas. Congressman Zach Wamp, a senior member of the House Appropriations Committee who played a key role in the America COMPETES Act, is co-host for this meeting.

I have talked with Senators Jeff Bingaman and Pete Domenici, the chair and senior Republican on the Energy Committee who played such a critical role in America COMPETES, and to Senator Lisa Murkowski, who likely will succeed Senator Domenici as the senior Republican on the Energy Committee.

Some say a presidential election year is no time for bipartisan action. I can’t think of a better time. Voters expect presidential candidates and candidates for Congress to come up with solutions for $4 gasoline, clean air and climate change, and the national security implications of our dependence on foreign oil. The people didn’t elect us to take a vacation this year just because there is a presidential election.

So, How to Proceed?

A few grand challenges: Senator Bingaman’s first reaction to the idea of a new Manhattan Project was that instead we need several mini-Manhattan Projects. He suggested as an example the “14 Grand Challenges for Engineering in the 21st Century” laid out by former MIT President Chuck Vest, the president of the National Institute of Engineering — three of which involve energy. I agree with Senator Bingaman and Chuck Vest.

Congress doesn’t do “comprehensive” well, as was demonstrated by the collapse of the comprehensive immigration bill. Step-by-step solutions or different tracks toward one goal are easier to digest and have fewer surprises. And, of course, the original Manhattan Project itself proceeded along several tracks toward one goal.

Here are my criteria for choosing several grand challenges:

Seven Grand Challenges

Here is where I invite your help. Rather than having members of Congress proclaim these challenges, or asking scientists alone to suggest them, I believe there needs to be preliminary discussion — including about whether the criteria are correct. Then Congress can pose to scientists questions about the steps to take to achieve the grand challenges.

To begin the discussion, I suggest asking what steps Congress and the federal government should take during the next five years toward these seven grand challenges so that the United States would be firmly on the path toward clean energy independence within a generation:

Anything Is Possible

This country of ours is a remarkable place.

Even during an economic slowdown, we will produce this year about 30 percent of all the wealth in the world for the 5 percent of us who live in the United States.

Despite “the gathering storm” of concern about American competitiveness, no other country approaches our brainpower advantage — our collection of research universities, national laboratories, and private-sector companies.

And this is still the only country where people say with a straight face that anything is possible — and really believe it.

These are precisely the ingredients that America needs during the next five years to place ourselves firmly on a path to clean energy independence within a generation — and in doing so, to make our jobs more secure, to help balance the family budget, to make our air cleaner and our planet safer and healthier — and to lead the world to do the same.

Lamar Alexander is the senior U.S. senator from Tennessee and chair of the Senate Republican Conference. He served as Tennessee’s governor from 1979 to 1987 and as U.S. Secretary of Education from 1991 to 1993.

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