Wednesday, June 25, 2008

John McCain's energy solution: free labor!

McCain Proposes a $300 Million Prize for a Next-Generation Car Battery

“I further propose we inspire the ingenuity and resolve of the American people,” Mr. McCain said, “by offering a $300 million prize for the development of a battery package that has the size, capacity, cost and power to leapfrog the commercially available plug-in hybrids or electric cars.”

He said the winner should deliver power at 30 percent of current costs. “That’s one dollar, one dollar, for every man, woman and child in the U.S. — a small price to pay for helping to break the back of our oil dependency,” he said.

If a corporation were to dedicate genuine effort to build this miracle battery, it would assign a director to the project, who would allocate a certain number of man-hours to the problem. The people who worked on the project would all have access to one another's research, and they would all get paid regardless of whether they arrived at a solution. Big companies, like governments are common pools for a lot of money, which is why they can afford to invest large sums up front to achieve a desired solutions.

Imagine a company instead saying "Okay, all of you employees start coming up with crazy ideas to design your own battery. Whoever pulls it off gets a gigantic bonus. Everyone else gets paid nothing." That's essentially what John McCain's proposal is. He's not fronting ANY of the money to generate this research. He's not proposing to absorb any of the risk, since if no engine gets built, no prize gets awarded. All he's offering to do is buy a finished product which does not yet exist.

I have to conclude that John McCain is not in the slightest bit serious about actually funding a solution to the problem. R&D is risky, therefore the cost of doing it is far higher than developing an actual product using known techniques. In any case, anyone who was capable of creating the miracle battery using only the funds available to an unfinanced individual would be able to make so much money from it that being bought out for $300 million in the end would most likely be insulting.

If McCain thinks the free market is so darn awesome, why hasn't the magic battery been produced already? This is a man who has no ideas.


  1. I'm no fan of McCain, but here I think there is some sense in what he's doing here, with some conditions. I don't think prizes are a bad thing in and of themselves - look at the success of the X Prize for space, and how the X Prize foundation have taken the same model and applied it to both genomics and creating vehicles that do 100 miles per gallon - and the X Prize people say that they are gong to focus future prizes on sustainability and the environment. Look also at the DARPA Grand Challenge. Prize funds seem to work with some degree of success in getting people to work on some interesting technological and scientific challenges.

    Here's where the conditions come in: it is not an alternative to the usual ways we do research - through research boards, universities, companies and the like - but it can provide a way to get those people working in research to focus their minds. $30m would be a pretty good prize for a university. Similarly, there may be a company who is already developing battery technologies - think of the huge advances in laptop and phone batteries the last decade - who could possibly work on something like this - they already have the infrastructure to research in this area.

    If this is McCain's only solution to the economic and environmental problems with the current fossil fuels policy, then it is a silly policy. $30m is pocket change in this game. It's a neat idea, but it should be a little bonus alongside a comprehensive environmental and energy policy - encouraging people to telecommute and video conference rather than commuting and flying to meetings, rebuilding public transit infrastructure like buses, metros, trams and long-distance rail and coach services, encouraging the use of renewable electricity sources (including nuclear) and so on. Implement all that stuff, and then an X Prize type system is an extra bonus - and I'm not particularly bothered whether the money comes from the government or a private business.

  2. Yeah I get what you're saying. I don't think that the X Prize is a BAD idea or anything, so it's fine if McCain wants to include that as a small piece of his energy policy. What you said at the end is spot on: it's pocket change, not a substitute for actual policy. (It is, however, $300 million, not $30 million.)

    Here's what the X Prize foundation has to say for themselves about this idea:

    "We commend Senator McCain for recognizing that great innovations can arise from the spirit of competition. But creating a new battery is only part of a broader challenge to solve our country’s energy crisis and dependence on foreign oil. We must also look seriously at developing new vehicles, especially those that are production capable."

  3. And Barack Obama's idea for breaking our oil dependence is?

    -- crickets chirping --

    Seriously, though I'm also no fan of McCain (but his wife is stunning), at least he is now proposing ideas and encouraging Congress to approve drilling and processing the massive oil shale deposits our country is sitting on which dwarf the Middle East.
    (He keeps this up and he might actually get my vote).

    I'm all for alternative forms of energy (wish I could get a practical solar-powered AC since I live in Florida), but the key word here is practical. Electric cars (or fuel-cell powered cars) will become practical when they can be mass-produced, become less expensive than today's cars and can get 300-500 miles on one charge.

  4. And Barack Obama's idea for breaking our oil dependence is?

    Not that hard to look up, if you try.

  5. Damn. First thing I thought of as I read this post was "but what about the X Prize?"

    But Tom beat me to it. And, like the X Prize, for second place the prize is.... el squatto.

    He also summed up that if it's McCain's One Big Idea (would that make McCain & his wife "One I(dea) and the doll"?, if it's his big finale, it's insufficient. But if it's part of a comprehensive plan...not so bad. And I agree that the other points Tom recommended were spot on.

    Couple more points re the X Prize. First, Russell mentioned sales revenue vs "being bought out". I didn't see anything about being bought out. More like "good job; here's a bonus. Now go sell a zillion of 'em".

    And, while Virgin Galactic will eventually capitalize on the winning entry, who's to say that other competitors, though not prize winners, won't capitalize some other way on the techniques & processes THEY developed?

    One thing I think is important to realize. Generation 3 and 3+ "aint yer grandma's nuke plants". By which I mean that reaction to new nukes is rooted in experience with (and bias over) past ones.

    Apparently the new models produce almost NO toxic waste.

    And for years I've been a fan of industrializing space (around full circle to the X Prize). If we put up solar power satellites we'd have a bunch of electricity. Massive up front costs, but virtually no continuing costs.

    Small lunar colony. Bulldozers teleoperated from earth scooping up the regolith. Electric rail gun to shoot it to earth orbit. Smelt it at the focus of a big parabolic mirror. Make all the struts (machine to make struts from aluminum foil exists & fits in shuttle bay). Just make the solar panels on earth.

    MANY MANY other products become possible once we're up there.

    (climbs off soap box)