03-20-11: The Brave New World of Mr. Chu

The Obama Administration’s Nobel Prize-winning physicist, Energy Secretary Dr. Stephen Chu appeared on Fox News Sunday (here) on March 20th and had a number of very disturbing–though completely unsurprising–things to say about energy development. But let’s go back in time to September, 2008, to an interview the Wall Street Journal (here) conducted with Mr. Chu. Also, the SMM Electric Vehicles archive has all my previous articles on the Chevy Volt.

‘Somehow we have to figure out how to boost the price of gasoline to the levels in Europe,’ Mr. Chu said.

Gasoline prices in Europe are currently about $10 per gallon ($200 to fill a 20 gallon fuel tank). Mr. Chu believes that artificially increasing gas prices will force Americans into smaller cars, public transportation and other situations more in line with the thinking of environmentalists. According to the WSJ:

Mr. Chu has called for gradually ramping up gasoline taxes over 15 years to coax consumers into buying more-efficient cars and living in neighborhoods closer to work.

Fast forward to March 20, 2011. Fox News Sunday host Chris Wallace brought up Sec. Chu’s 2008 WSJ comments, but oddly did not ask if he still favored raising the price of fuel to force Americans to do his bidding. Chu responded that he was working on:

…developing methods to take the pain out of high gas prices.’ He added: ‘The recent spike in gasoline prices following that huge spike in 2007, 2008 is a reminder to Americans that the price of gasoline over the long haul should be expected to go up just because of supply and demand issues. And so we see this in the buying habits of Americans as they make choices for the next car they buy.’

But how to take the “pain out of high gas prices?” Chu said that the Obama administration wants to increase mileage standards and “support the development” of electric cars. He said that he expected batteries capable of a 200-300 mile range on a single charge in the near future.

Wallace also noted that not a single permit for a new nuclear power plant has been issued in America since 1978. He asked Chu if this has made our 100+ nuclear power plants less safe, and Chu mostly danced around the question. Again, oddly, Wallace did not ask Chu why, since Mr. Obama claims to support nuclear energy, no permits have been issued under the Obama Administration.

Former Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff, on ABC’s This Week, had a substantially different view:

‘…reactionary responses to crises — like the moratorium on drilling in the Gulf of Mexico following the BP oil spill — will only harm America’s attempts to develop mindful energy policies.’ He said a broader and comprehensive policy is needed. ‘You know, at the end of the day, if we don’t use coal, oil, natural gas or nuclear, we’re going to be sitting around the fire trying to warm ourselves like we did eons ago,’ Chertoff said. ‘So we’re going to have to manage risk. That doesn’t mean guaranteeing against any. It means having in place ways to mitigate problems.’

And there, gentle readers, we see our energy future for at least the next two, and God Forbid, six years. It should be no surprise that Mr. Obama has chosen an environmentalist, utopian zealot as Secretary of Energy, but Sec. Chu, short of saying with wild, crazy eyes while maniacally cackling, “I’m going to make you pay $10 a gallon for gas if it’s the last thing I do!” makes no pretense about caring about, or making any effort to reduce high gasoline prices.

His answer to high gas prices is to try to remove the pain rather than reducing the cost? One might hope that government officials would grow in office, that the realities of dealing with the world would have some positive effect on their theoretical, impractical viewpoints, but Sec. Chu seems to have only doubled down on his beliefs of 2008. Remember that in 2008 Mr. Obama also said that if he got his way, energy prices would “necessarily skyrocket.” We elected him anyway. Silly us.

Consider Sec. Chu’s 2008 comments and their implications: Gas at $10 a gallon, forcing Americans to buy “more-efficient” (small) cars, forcing Americans to live closer to work. These are the ideas of an Ivy-tower, self-styled elite who have never lived or worked in the real world, a world where only a small portion of the population can live within electric car range of work. Public transportation, by the way, is commonly available only in major metropolitan areas.

The cost of living in major urban areas is far greater than in much of the rest of the nation, and even if Americans were forced to move to urban areas in large numbers, there could not possibly be sufficient available jobs, to say nothing of decent, affordable housing. On the day this post was written, Mr. Obama was visiting the slums of Rio de Janeiro. If Sec. Chu had his way, such slums would surround all American cities and 10% unemployment would be looked upon with fond longing for the good old days. There are very good reasons why every American doesn’t live in an urban setting. For all of his education and apparent intellect, Sec. Chu seems unaware of this–or doesn’t care.

When gas reaches $5.00 per gallon, as it is expected to do this summer–it’s already that high in some places–the effect on the economy will be very negative indeed. At $10 it would be catastrophic. Many Americans simply would not be able to afford to buy gas to drive to work and carry out the daily functions necessary to support life. Even a great many middle class Americans would find themselves in financial trouble, and such people are certainly not going to be in any condition to buy shiny new fuel-efficient green cars at any price. Oh yes, and don’t forget that each new arbitrary mileage mandate adds additional cost to new cars. Fuel prices not only effect the cost of gas, but the cost of food and every product produced or imported, and this effect is consistent across the economy. Strangely, Sec. Chu seems unaware of this, or doesn’t care.

Fuel efficient cars are, in most ways, good things, but the kinds of cars Sec. Chu wants to mandate through stratospheric energy prices are impractical for much of the public. For example, I recently bought a 2011 Ford Fiesta. It’s fun to drive, gets more than 30 MPH around town, a bit over 40 MPG on the highway, and is quite roomy–for two adults. It would be large enough for a family with one infant in a car seat, and perhaps until that infant reached 9 or 10, but beyond that, it would be entirely unsuitable for a larger family, unless both adults were only 5’4” tall or so. The problem is that millions of Americans have larger families, millions need pickup trucks for their work and a variety of other legitimate reasons, and millions of Americans simply like larger cars. They tend not to see their choices as illegitimate. No doubt, Sec. Chu would not share their opinion, if he cared at all.

Sec. Chu obviously takes it for granted that gas prices will rise dramatically, and rather than work–as the Secretary of Energy–to produce more oil and other natural resources to lower the costs of energy, he focuses only on wasting taxpayer and borrowed money on green boondoggles to ensure that energy prices will “necessarily skyrocket.” The pain of high gas prices comes from their high cost. This takes money out of the pockets of families, which lowers their standard of living, sometimes painfully indeed. More efficient cars will not lessen that pain. It’s a sick irony that the price level of gas necessary to force sufficient Americans to buy the kind of cars Mr. Chu favors would also so wreck the economy that they could not afford such vehicles and would be reduced to something resembling a third world standard of living. Sec. Chu is also apparently unaware of this, or perhaps he is.

As to electric cars, regular readers will recall that I’ve been keeping up with the Three Stooges Film Festival that is the Chevy Volt (take the link in the first paragraph to ready my previous posts). At the moment, real world experience for this $41,000 MSRP wonder car delivers about 25 miles per charge, and with 110V house current 8-12 hours are consumed in charging a depleted battery. For an additional $2000, not including installation, one can buy a 220V fast charger that shortens charging time to 4-6 hours, but that’s only at home. At last check, Volts were selling for as much as $65,000.

Some would suggest that the mere fact that people are willing to pay $65,000 for a $41,000 car is suggestive of the Volt’s financial viability.  Nonsense.  The Volt is being feted as the car of the future, the car everyone will be driving when its brilliant innovations and savings become obvious.  Those few paying premium prices aren’t the kinds of people in the kinds of numbers necessary to make a $41,000 compact car economically viable.  They are doubtless the wealthy with either serious environmental pretentions or who happen to like to possess the latest rolling technological toy.  Such people need not worry about day-to-day practicality.  A car for the Volk the Volt is not.

As a physicist, one might be tempted to think that Sec. Chu would know that scientists and engineers would be delighted to develop batteries that would get from 50-80 miles on a charge. That would be a 100% improvement over the best currently available technology. The kind of improvement Sec. Chu is suggesting is, to put it mildly, unlikely absent a breakthrough of unimaginable proportions, or unless the government has the secret already in hand from reverse-engineering a captured alien spacecraft. Even the aliens probably have to recharge every light year or so. Yet Sec. Chu sees millions and millions of happy little electric cars plying the highways and byways in the very near future.

But wait a minute, the Obama Administration isn’t authorizing any nuclear plants, they’re destroying the coal industry (Mr. Obama and Mr. Chu are on record hoping to do just that), which is the industry that powers most of our electric generating plants, and even solar and wind projects are being delayed by federal bureaucrats and failing that, shut down by environmentalist lawsuits. Hydro-electric facilities, as the British would say, are right out. Even a substantial solar project in the Mojave Desert has been stymied by environmentalists. Something about the project potentially annoying various local reptiles, I believe. But even if it is eventually constructed, it will produce only a tiny amount of electricity, and only when the sun shines. Our electric grid and power generating capability is aging and we’re not building any new plants. From where, exactly, will all of the electricity to power these marvelous electric cars come? One would think that as a physicist, Sec. Chu would be aware of this as well, or perhaps he just doesn’t care.

It’s clear that our President and his Secretary of Energy are not, in fact, working for the benefit of Americans, but are working to establish their socialistic vision of utopia, a utopia where Americans will have far less freedom, mobility, wealth and opportunity, except for a self-styled elite who must have such perks to successfully keep us on the utopian path. Sounds familiar, doesn’t it? Something about Marx or communism? But I’d have to look that stuff up. Maybe another time.

Perhaps the only thing amazing about all of this is that within a scant two years, our expectations have been so drastically lowered, we’ve come to expect so little, that this is almost unremarkable. Isn’t it interesting that Mr. Chertoff, no longer a member of the Obama Administration, now has apparently rational views on these issues? Oh that’s right! He’s not one of the elite anymore. He’d be living with the rest of us, you know, the non-elite little people who eat pollution for breakfast and all drive coal-burning Hummers.

But it’s not all bad news. Every Chevy Volt comes with a $7500 tax credit! That’s right, your taxes, gentle reader, are being spent to subsidize $65,000 motorized toys for the wealthy, the wealthy the Obamites claim to despise. But hey, with that $7500 tax credit, a Volt, if you can find one, will cost only $57,500! Maybe the dim new world of Sec. Chu isn’t so bad after all.