The Apollo creed
You can’t swing a drowned polar bear without hitting a new report that says America needs a massive, Apollo-like program to rebuild its bloated, fossil-dependent industry into something more sustainable. The latest isn’t about sustainability per se, but rather my nemesis, the dread “energy security.” The Southern States Energy Board commissioned a report (PDF) charting America’s survival in an age of precious oil, as the age of cheap oil passes.
The study’s conclusions are about what you’d expect — and exactly the problem with the whole energy security notion: Essentially, a military-industrial problem is identified and a military-industrial solution is proposed (coal-to-liquids, enhanced oil recovery, even oil shale for @$%#’s sake). There’s a nod toward biomass, but no real effort at sustainability.
There’s another problem though, on my mind since I finished Michael Shnayerson’s The Car That Could about, yes, the EV1. The book is a positive account of GM’s fight to build the EV1, so much so that if you didn’t know what happened afterward (the book was published in 1996), you’d almost think we’d all be driving electric cars 10 years later. Er, not so much.
GM’s protests notwithstanding, there was obviously a severe case of schizophrenia at the company during the mid-1990s. On one hand (taking Shnayerson’s positive accounts at face value), GM sincerely wanted the EV1 to do well. On the other, GM was fighting tooth and nail against the regulations that made the EV1 necessary. As the team building the EV1 met and exceeded a number of technical challenges, GM’s management actually worried that the good news would hurt their efforts to lobby against California’s ZEV mandate.
That said, the GM team did manage to meet and exceed a number of technical challenges on a budget that wasn’t exactly generous. GM talks about spending a billion dollars on the EV1, but they neglect to mention that restyling an existing model costs just as much, or that the first Saturn cost $3 billion. It’s kind of miraculous that GM accomplished what it did, considering the meager budget and outright hostility from upper management.
(And no, I’m not ignorant of the real-world problems the EV1 faced.)
Which brings me to the Apollo Program. While many of these proposed “new Apollo” programs are huge and systemic, that’s not what the Apollo program was, nor the Manhattan project. Those programs were directed at specific technical goals — land a man on the moon, or build an atom bomb. If we’re going to go for a true Apollo-like program, we need something more specific than “energy independence by 2020.” The EV1 program showed that, given a specific engineering goal and a legal requirement to meet it, even America’s stodgiest corporation could succeed.
The point isn’t to narrow our aims. Rather, the history of the EV1 and the Apollo Program show that building a large machine spawns a whole industry of suppliers and components. Similarly, setting an ambitious — but discrete — technical challenge could build an industry.
So why not demand an electric car with a 500-mile range by 2015? Solar panels that cost less than $0.75 per watt? A home that isn’t just energy neutral, but exports energy? If we’re going to claim the spirit of Apollo, let’s get serious — bold, nearly-impossible goals with a serious budget and a hard deadline.