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Opinion

An Apollo program for US energy?

History shows that massive federal support for alternative-energy projects could be a massive waste of money.

By Peter Z. Grossman / January 28, 2009



Indianapolis

When was the last time you had to choose between a trip to Paris and a trip to the moon?

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And when did you last have to decide whether to buy an atomic bomb or a bomb with conventional explosives and a similar yield?

Silly questions, right?

But these are the kinds of questions we'll be asking about the alternative energy technologies the Obama administration wants us to use. They illustrate why the overused analogies to the Apollo moon landing and Manhattan atom bomb project don't apply. Those programs were entirely different in purpose from ones related to our search for energy alternatives. And if we are to have a sensible energy policy, it's important for the American people to understand how they are different.

Not that any politician will tell you. Nearly every president since Richard Nixon has invoked the Apollo program to win support for some energy panacea program. President Obama went into Apollo-mode on the campaign trail to explain why he was going to spend $150 billion to jump-start renewable energy.

At first glance, the analogy seems to make sense. If government could do something so stupendous as put a man on the moon, surely it could produce a device to make us energy independent. Right?

Well, no. The Apollo Program was an engineering feat. Replacing conventional energy technologies with something new will be a commercial feat. Government is good at the former (although the New Orleans levees may give us pause); it's terrible at the latter.

Let's try those questions again:

When you last bought a car, did you have a choice between a hybrid car and a comparably fuel-efficient one with a conventional engine? If you did, you probably went with the conventional car. Why? Probably because cost, reliability, style, and other factors weighed more heavily than being "green." Even a government tax break on the hybrid may not have persuaded you to buy one.

Or what about the last hot water heater you bought: Did you choose gas? Electric? Solar?

In the 1970s, President Carter prodded Congress to pass tax breaks for solar hot water heaters. These breaks were designed to expire after a few years because solar would soon be, by the government's reckoning, so obviously superior, cost effective, and popular that few would resist. His administration wanted 2.5 million solar heaters installed nationwide by 1987, and some proponents expected that by 2025 solar would be providing most of America's hot water.

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