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 V.18 No.15 | April 9 - 15, 2009 

Ortiz y Pino

A New Manhattan Project

Drastic situations call for drastic solutions ... and, boy, is our situation drastic!

Our national appetite for fossil fuels has brought us to the brink of economic and environmental disaster. Continuing to import petroleum and natural gas will leave us extremely vulnerable to the market manipulations of foreign governments.

Yet we appear to have simultaneously begun an irreversible decline in our domestic production of those critical fuels. We need more and more energy, but we can’t fill even half of our demand through our own supplies.

The result is that we are suddenly in the grip of a national stampede to develop “energy independence”; to find new “sustainable” or “renewable” energy sources; to live simpler, healthier lives “off the grid” (or at least significantly reducing our consumption of electricity and conserving other sources of power).

A scavenger hunt of global dimensions is underway. Wind, solar, nuclear, biomass, geothermal, agricultural and microbial options are all being pushed by various factions of experts and entrepreneurs eager to help break our addiction to petroleum.

Given enough time, I’m confident those thousands of stubbornly independent garage tinkerers, backroom chemists and inspired inventors can be counted on to eventually produce the breakthroughs in technology or design or materials that might prove capable of leading us out of the fossil fuel desert and into the Promised Land of Green Energy.

Unfortunately, we don’t have a lot of time.

You’ve seen the Al Gore movie; you’ve read the scenarios involving greenhouse gases, melting ice caps, rising ocean levels, the very real possibility that the point of no return might be reached and it will be too late to prevent catastrophe. So you know we probably don’t have the luxury of waiting patiently for an accidental, providential or serendipitous silver bullet to plop into our collective lap.

Drastic situations call for drastic solutions ... and fortunately, we have a few successful precedents from recent history, examples we can look to for how we might accelerate producing renewable energy in sufficiently large enough amounts to make a difference.

In the case of both the World War II-era Manhattan Project and the Apollo Project of the '60s, a president launched a well-financed, coordinated effort of public and private resources focused on achieving a single, easily explained goal for the country: unleashing the power of the atom (Manhattan) and placing a man on the moon (Apollo).

Each effort succeeded, and in the case of energy independence from petroleum, I think we can safely count on widespread public support were President Obama to launch a Manhattan (or Apollo) Project for the Twenty-First Century.

During the state’s recent legislative session, Sen. Carlos Cisneros sponsored Senate Joint Memorial 33, which passed easily. It calls on our Congressional delegation to push for a concentrated national campaign. Such a campaign would produce adequate alternative energy to put us on a course toward 100 percent alternative sources within the decade.

The key to SJM33 is that New Mexico would be the logical site to locate the initiative.

We have the natural resources (wind, solar, geothermal, agricultural and lots of publicly owned acreage to devote to the task) and we have the intellectual resources (two national labs, a network of university and private sector high-tech research and development organizations, a concentration of PhDs from Las Cruces to Los Alamos, and the supercomputing capability at Intel) to effectively create the model right here in our state.

What we lack is the financial wherewithal and the political will at the highest levels in Washington to make it happen. SJM33 didn’t get a lot of press when it was debated and approved because it calls on the Obama administration to commit $7 billion each to Los Alamos and Sandia for the project and another $7 billion to a consortium of state universities in New Mexico to pull it all together. Twenty-one billion dollars at the time seemed unrealistic, so few reporters took an interest.

Until the administration began dishing out that kind of money right and left. Now it seems downright frugal.

The man behind SJM33 is a Croatian émigré macroeconomist named Miro Kovacevich who now lives in Santa Fe. He chose to come to New Mexico four years ago because he is convinced this is the ideal spot to successfully produce a new Manhattan Project for sustainable alternative energy. Kovacevich persuaded Gov. Richardson, Cisneros and the rest of the Legislature. Now he is pushing Obama about the idea.

Our competition is Texas (where T. Boone Pickens is pushing hard for his own vision of sustainable alternative energy) and California (where Arnold Schwarzenegger believes there is a case to be made ... just because it is California).

Our new president has announced his intention to make public policies that are as consistent with scientific evidence and research findings as possible. And so the decision of where to locate a national effort for renewable energy might actually fall on what state has the best resources, not the most votes.

And in that case, we have an awful lot of evidence on our side.

The opinions expressed are solely those of the author.

 

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