Joe at Techdirt weighs in on our alleged need for a “Manhattan project” on alternative energy:
Charles Cooper of News.com is upset that on President Bush’s recent trip to Silicon Valley, he didn’t speak with more substance on how technology could help ease our energy problems. Specifically, Cooper would have liked to see Bush call for a new Manhattan Project, this time focusing on alternative energy. First of all, he should know that you can never get much more than rhetoric from a politician. Second, we don’t need another Manhattan Project–the market is already taking care of that. VCs are pouring record amounts into energy technology, none of which required the President’s approval. There’s even some reason to believe there’s overinvestment in new technology, which could be bad for VCs, but great for the economy on the whole. While centrally planned projects might be appropriate for military applications, a pending proposal to provide prize money for hydrogen breakthroughs is much more intriguing. As in other areas, getting people to compete for prizes and profits is a better solution than just throwing a bunch of money at them.
An even broader point is that it’s not even clear what the goal of a “Manhattan project” would be. With the original Manhattan project, we had a very clear goal: blow stuff up by splitting the atom. But it’s likely that improving energy efficiency will take a lot of small technological advances that will gradually reduce our energy consumption and/or increase our energy supply. We have lots of renewable energy sources already, the problem is that none of them are economical. So the most important constraints are economic, not scientific or technological. Those aren’t the kinds of problems you can solve by putting a lot of smart people in a room.
I think you’d have the same kind of problem with a hydrogen prize. The criteria necessary to make hydrogen technology viable are complex, and it’s not even obvious that hydrogen is going to be a viable technology in the first place. Add in the likelihood of special interest lobbying, and what you’re more likely to do is to give a whole bunch of money to some company that develops a technology that meets the specs but isn’t actually useful for anything.
And in any event, if hydrogen technology is a viable alternative to fossil fuels, there’s already a massive pot of gold called “profit” for whoever figures it out, so it’s not like there’s a need for additional incentives.