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Here to see participants' responses to this interview.
Today, we’re departing
from our usual focus on the structure of government and the election
system in Minnesota to focus on a national and, indeed, an international
question of the utmost importance: Where will our future sources of energy
come from? This summary covers our session with Minnesota’s Joe Shuster,
author of the 2008 book Beyond Fossil Fuels: the Roadmap to Energy
of meeting with Joe Shuster
8301 Creekside Circle,
Bloomington, MN 55437
Joe Shuster, author and
Verne C. Johnson, chair; Dave Beal, Dave Broden, Marianne Curry, Bill
Frenzel (by phone), Paul Gilje, Jim Hetland, Jim Olson (by phone), and
Wayne Popham (by phone)
Context of the meeting
-- Soaring prices for gasoline at the pump, rising demand for oil from
rapidly growing economies abroad, the growing need for alternative energy
sources, increased U.S. dependence on foreign oil, long-term concerns
about the supply of fossil fuels, and a host of other factors have moved
the issue of energy independence to the front burner. In his book, Joe
Shuster lays out a provocative plan to achieve energy independence by 2040
by moving entirely from fossil-fuels to a radically different mix of
sources. He envisions nuclear power from fast
neutron reactors as our dominant source of energy a generation from
Welcome and introduction
– Verne and Paul welcomed and introduced Joe Shuster. His book grew from
two and a half years of research, including reading 60 books, interviewing
100 energy experts and plowing through scores of studies. Shuster, a
chemical engineer who lives in New Prague, co-founded Minnesota Valley
Engineering, a leading manufacturer of technology-intensive cryogenic
equipment. Later, he founded Teltech, an engineering and scientific
consulting firm that produced hundreds of technical reports on
energy-related topics. He has founded or co-founded half a dozen other
technology-based companies and served as a director of more than 20
businesses and other institutions. His “energy alert” paper for the U.S.
Congress predicted the 1973 oil embargo. In the preface to his book,
Shuster, who is 76, says he wrote it as a call to action, so that his
children and grandchildren can enjoy as future as bright and bountiful as
the era that benefited him so much.
Comments and discussion
– During Shuster’s comments and in discussion with the Civic Caucus,
supplemented by information from his book, the following points were
1. The times call for a sense of urgency.
need to become better informed about the mounting crisis they face as
fossil fuels get depleted. Today, the
U.S. gets 86 percent
of its energy from fossil fuels: coal (23.2 percent), natural gas (23.9
percent) and oil (39.4 percent). The rest comes from nuclear (8.2
percent), hydropower (2.6 percent) and biomass and various other sources
(3.3 percent). Assuming current global consumption of oil and forecasts
for worldwide population and economic growth, the world will run out of
conventional oil reserves in about 30 years, out of natural gas in less
than 50 years and out of coal in less than 75
years, if we are forced to convert coal to satisfy the world’s
transportation needs. Further, these numbers do not allow for population
growth or for economic expansion. And imports, often from unstable
or unfriendly nations, have grown to account for 62 percent of the oil we
consume. Thus, the nation needs to rapidly ramp up new sources of energy.
2. The solution to this enormous problem
is to turn to a strikingly different mix of energy sources, largely
nuclear power but also to other alternative energy sources.
that the U.S.
get out of environmentally damaging fossil fuels entirely by achieving a
goal of 80 percent nuclear, 10 percent solar and 10 percent wind by 2040.
This calls for a radical shift in energy policy. He notes that the U.S.
has not built a nuclear power plant since the late 1970s.
His plan calls for at least 400 new nuclear
plants to accommodate the country’s electrical needs only, and ideally,
800 to accommodate the country’s electrical needs plus electricity for an
all electric transportation fleet—approximately 25 per year for 30 years –
by 2040. Shuster and others think this is doable---plants would all be
modular, and factory built.
(In Minnesota, Xcel’s
nuclear plants at Prairie Island and Monticello generate 24 percent of the
state’s electric power. Since 1994, the state has banned construction of
new nuclear plants. Nationally, in this year’s presidential campaign,
Republican nominee John McCain’s energy plan calls for the construction of
45 new nuclear plants by 2030, with an ultimate goal of building 100 of
such plants. Democratic nominee Barack Obama’s plan says there is no
future for expanded nuclear power without first addressing four key
issues: the public’s right-to-know, security of nuclear fuel and waste,
proliferation and waste storage.) Shuster
wonders how neither candidate understands the inevitability of a large
nuclear fleet--there really is no other choice.
A Civic Caucus member
raised the question of how the goal of energy independence fits with the
realities of globalization, where nations are often economically dependent
on other nations for goods swapped in a complex international trade
3. New technology will resolve the issue of how
to dispose of radioactive waste.
Instead of storing the waste generated by existing light-water reactors on
site or at a remote repository such as
Nevada’s Yucca Mountain, a process called UREX-Plus will recycle nearly
all of the waste into new fuel which in turn will fuel the new generation
of fast neutron reactors. While scientists have proven the efficacy of
this process, questions remain among some. The doubts can be resolved by
building pilot plants to demonstrate and optimize both the UREX-Plus
recycling process and the new proliferation resistant fast neutron
There's a dramatic difference between the current nuclear power plant technology, which produces spent fuel rods with
a life of 10,000 years before they become benign, and the new fast neutron reactor technology, Shuster said.
The central and overriding benefit of the new reactor technology is the use of already stored waste fuel rods as fuel stock, leaving
spent rods having only a life of 300 to 500 years. The technology was ready for a demonstration model until President Clinton
reactor technology represents, a Civic Caucus member said, an opportunity
for America to boost its science and technology capability to produce
employment and trade opportunities for the next generation and to spur
economic development for the U.S. on the world market. It could be, the
member said, a kind of Manhattan Project, harnessing the best and the
brightest in our technology sector to a project that can take U.S. economy
to the next level of benefit to humanity.
Experience shows that safety need not be a problem.
has caused only one death in the
nuclear industry. Concerns about the impact of the accident at Three Mile
Island turned out to be wildly overstated. While the
Russia was much more serious, a Chernobyl-like accident in the U.S. won’t
happen because U.S. reactors are designed differently and include a
containment building designed to prevent radioactivity from escaping into
the environment. The U.S. Navy’s nuclear-powered submarine fleet has
operated since 1955 without a serious mishap. France and other countries
depend heavily on nuclear power, and safety has not been a significant
problem. Provisions can be made to guard against other concerns, such as
transport of hazardous materials and terrorism. Shuster cites numerous
studies showing that by far the greatest perils come from the burning of
fossil fuels, which he estimates produce pollution that kills roughly
50,000 Americans annually.
studies show that the operating and capital costs for nuclear plants are
approximately the same and often less than comparable costs for using
fossil fuels to generate power. Shuster estimates
capital and operating costs for a 1,000-megawatt-electric fast neutron
reactor at 4.2 cents per kilowatt hour. He puts comparable costs for a
conventional light-water reactor at 5.28 cents, coal-generated electricity
at 4.70 cents, and electricity generated by natural gas at 4.56 cents per
kilowatt hour. He cites other cost studies that arrived at similar
6. The international cooperation needed to fully embrace
nuclear energy globally can take place through the Global Energy Nuclear
This alliance, which Shuster strongly supports, was proposed by the Bush
administration. It seeks to help all countries become energy independent
and rely less on imported oil, boost economic growth and encourage the use
of new recycling technology and the new generation of fast neutron
reactors to greatly reduce nuclear waste and proliferation concerns
sources of energy, principally solar and wind, will help solve the
problem, but don’t believe the hype about them.
Grand projections, such as one that up to half of U.S. energy would come
from renewables by 2005, were totally unrealistic. Part of the reason why
the alternative sources have been slow to take off is that the fossil-fuel
industry lobby gets billions of dollars in tax breaks and subsidies
annually from the federal government. Major challenges for both the solar
and wind industries include finding the large areas needed for generating
energy and then transmitting the energy to major population centers.
Still, by 2025, both solar and wind energy could be supplying up to half
of the new electrical energy required by the
from now until then.
about global warming distract us from the real problem: the burning of
polluting fossil fuels at ever-increasing rates. Thus
the debate about how much of global warming is caused by mankind doesn’t
really matter. The overarching issue is how to generate the energy the
world needs through sources other than fossil fuels, before the fossil
fuel reserves run out. Also when the
transformation to all renewable clean energy is complete, mankind’s
emissions of greenhouse gases will stop.
9. Stepped-up conservation is a worthy effort,
and will buy some needed time, but
will not solve our energy problem.
Shuster says that at present consumption rates, if the world
conserved 10 percent of the energy it uses, oil would last only four more
years, natural gas only seven more and coal eight more. Conserving 20
percent, which would be very difficult, would only double those time
hydrogen economy: not now and maybe never. That’s the
title of Shuster’s chapter on why he reversed his earlier view that
hydrogen would some day emerge as the ultimate alternative to fossil fuels
and the internal combustion engine. While hydrogen is the most plentiful
element on the planet, it is always found in combination with other
elements and it is an energy carrier rather than an energy source. To be
used to create a fuel, it must be separated from other elements in a
process that requires significant amounts of money, facilities, and
energy. In Shuster’s view, the costs are out of economic reach for the
11. Moving to an electrified transportation industry
offers sweeping benefits.
Foremost among them,
Shuster argues, are lower transportation costs, less imported oil, an
improved balance of payments, a stronger dollar, fewer wars for energy
resources, and less pollution. But gaining these benefits means moving
rapidly to hybrid plug-ins and all-electric cars, speeding up research on
batteries and battery-charging systems, phasing out gasoline-powered
vehicles, adding surcharges on gasoline and purchases of cars getting less
than 30 miles to the gallon, possibly even rationing gasoline, adding
plug-in stations at convenient locations, boosting the penalties
manufacturers pay for noncompliance with efficiency standards, and helping
Detroit’s automakers get back on their feet.
and offshore won’t provide enough oil to make a significant difference.
says drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and the National
Petroleum Reserve of Alaska territory would help some, but wouldn’t
provide much of a bridge to a non-fossil fuel era. It would be very risky
for the environment. Offshore drilling would be very expensive. Of the
options for boosting domestic oil supplies over the next 30 years, only
oil shale offers a reasonable, reliable and available solution.
He cited a study that shows the cost to
produce oil from oil shale is about the same as the cost to recover oil
off shore, particularly beyond the continental shelf.
Shuster is critical of carbon
credits, carbon offsets and cap-and-trade systems, which are designed to
reduce emissions. He
views these plans, which have been gaining political popularity, as
abuse-prone schemes that buy time and distract attention from more direct
efforts to get off of our addiction to fossil fuels. Under cap-and-trade
programs, an authority sets a limit on the pollutants that can be emitted.
Companies get permits and are limited to emitting a specified amount. If
they exceed the limit, they must pay a fine or buy credits from companies
that are under the limits. Shuster says capping and trading has not
reduced emissions in Europe where they have had considerable support for
this scheme and have been at it for three years.
questions T. Boone Pickens’ heavily publicized plan for energy
plan calls for the
U.S. to generate a
fifth of its electricity from wind by 2030, thus freeing up natural gas so
it could be used to power trucks and automobiles. Shuster says the plan
falls apart upon close scrutiny. Replacing 20
percent of the energy needed to produce electricity with wind energy would
steer only 20 billion gallons of gasoline equivalents into the
transportation system–10 percent of the 200 billion gallons of gasoline
and diesel fuel the
transportation fleet uses annually.
Shuster adds that
since the wind part of the Pickens plan would save only a tenth of the oil
the U.S. consumes annually, it would be cheaper and more effective to
start switching to plug-in hybrids and all-electric cars instead. Going to
more nuclear energy would be a cleaner option, and one much more easily
managed and considerably cheaper.
has only a fraction of the marketing clout of Pickens, who is spending $58
million to tout his plan. The book, published by
Beaver’s Pond Press in Edina, has gone through its first printing of 5,000
copies and is into its second printing now, but Shuster says it hasn’t
been easy to market the book. He says it will have more impact if he can
persuade politicians in Washington of its merits. He has distributed his
book to U.S.
senators and representatives, much as he circulated his 1973 paper
forecasting an oil embargo to them. But he got more attention from them
then than he has so far this time. All book
reports and feed back from Amazon and elsewhere claim the book is an easy
read and suitable for a mass audience. Shuster stated that every teacher,
every parent, and every college student should read this book. They must
become better informed so they can help effect change. Paul Gilje said he
could not put the book down---the same as if he was reading Vince Flynn or
Closing summary by Shuster--
a. If the transformation to all renewables takes
fifty years, the world will need 1.5 trillion barrels of oil to bridge us
when we only have 1 trillion barrels of conventional oil left in the
b. A total solution will require many things to be
done; further development of biofuels, rapid development of plug-in
hybrids and all electric automobiles, aggressive development of the
country’s oil shale resources and immediate construction of the required
nuclear energy pilot plants
c. Reject feel good band-aid solutions often
proposed by the government. Insist on the complete story---all quantified
stating exactly the expected outcome and at what price.
d. Aggressively promote GNEP because if the U.S.
fixes its problem and the rest of the world does not, we still all lose.
The world needs U.S. leadership now more than ever.
17. Thanks to Joe Shuster--On behalf
of the Civic Caucus, Verne thanked Shuster for meeting with the caucus.
18. Thanks to Dave Beal--On behalf
of the Civic Caucus, Verne expressed special thanks to Dave Beal, a
columnist for Twin Cities Business magazine and a longtime business
journalist for the Pioneer Press, for taking notes and writing up
the summary of today's meeting.