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Leonard Hyman & William Tilles

Leonard Hyman & William Tilles

Leonard S. Hyman is an economist and financial analyst specializing in the energy sector. He headed utility equity research at a major brokerage house and…

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The U.S. Is Falling Behind In Energy Tech Research

  • The National Science Foundation reported that the US is falling behind China in measures of scientific prowess
  • Science is often not a top priority for many politicians, especially at present
  • A number of energy tech developments in China are getting closer to becoming a commercial reality

Late last year, Yucheng Jiang and associates at Suzhou University of Science and Technology published a paper in which they described a device that could combine solar energy production with storage. That is, a combined generator and battery, which would operate at a higher efficiency level than the normal solar cell, and could retain the charge for seven days. Don’t get too excited, yet, because this device has to operate at an extremely low temperature and is not in commercial production, either.   

But think of the implications. These devices, if they became commercial, in the electricity business, could eliminate the need for batteries, possibly allowing millions to disconnect from the grid. We could all end up buying Chinese power packages. From the perspective of evolving grid disrupting technologies, this is as disruptive as it gets. 

Then, in December, the state-controlled China Huaneng Group commenced commercial operation at the Shidao Bay Nuclear Power Plant of the world’s first small nuclear power plant. The first two reactors together have 210 MW of capacity. The plan is to have six reactors with a total of 650 MW, roughly half the size of one conventional nuclear generator unit. The gas-cooled pebble bed technology is not new.  Rolls Royce proposes to build conventional nuclear power plants modularly, with each unit about half the size of a conventional reactor unit. Several American firms are developing small, modular units, as well. The point is that the Chinese have actually started to put small plants into service at least five years ahead of their competitors. They will have something to sell soon, if the plants work properly.  And there will be buyers around the world. 

Now for the third news item, related to the previous items, that did not make it onto cable news as far as we can tell. The National Science Foundation reported that the US is falling behind China in measures of scientific prowess, including measures such as patents filed and published papers. The NSF report conceded that the US cannot be first in every area of scientific endeavor but argued that we need to choose the fields in which we cannot afford to rank number two. The report emphasized the need to stay ahead in basic research which is often non-commercial. But the Federal government is a major funder of basic research. And clearly, science is often not a top priority for many politicians, especially at present. So, to put it together, maybe the technology developments in items one and two are a direct result of the US’s lag in item three, funding enough basic research.

We are not arguing that the Chinese government can unerringly predict the problems and opportunities that will require action, or that it will have the right solution. We do believe, though, that certain technological problems are staring us in the face. And nations that develop plausible products for the market at the right time will be successful, perhaps wildly. The Chinese government bankrolls these developments, and, unfortunately, we may have to find ways to do the same if we want to keep up. For those of a certain age this sounds like another “Sputnik moment”, that is, we as a nation suddenly find ourselves lagging technologically and must quickly invest in basic research and science education at all levels. That’s the challenge.

By Leonard Hyman and William Tilles for Oilprice.com

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