Jim Woolsey: Energy Security, Renewables and Salt

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Last night I had the dubious distinction of being the guy sitting next to former director of the CIA, Ambassador, and Undersecretary of the Navy (a post he held before I was born), and current Senior Vice President of Booz Allen Hamilton and partner at Vantage Point Venture Partners, R. James Woolsey.

He has a fairly clear message that he is happy to share with anyone that will listen:

The United States is at grave risk to both “malignant” and “malevolent” disruptions to the grid and that threat can be addressed through distributed renewable generation which can simultaneously reduce the importance of oil to the ignominious fall from grace of salt.

I have had the pleasure of hearing him speak and spending some time with him before moderating last night’s event, and despite how highly I thought of him before, he did not disappoint.  His is a decidedly aggressive approach to the US’ energy future, and like the well trained litigator he is, he presents his case very well.  Electric vehicles and distributed renewables are the hallmarks of an utopian (utopic?) energy future, that would leave OPEC states reeling with the need to find, as he puts it,  honest work, and reducing the disposable cash reserves some currently use to fund terrorist activities.

His oil-salt analogy is profound, and may indeed be a good roadmap to making oil a non-strategic commodity – he argues that through electricity, humans found a better way to store meat, and as a result, salt’s value plummeted. He does not see the shift in oil’s value coming from cap & trade (even at $30/ton it does not produce enough of a tax on gasoline to curb behavior) or, while possibly effective, a direct tax to gasoline which will struggle to get meaningful support from legislators that can only look as far forward as practical for their aspirations for re-election.

The answer, in his opinion, lies squarely on the shoulders of a transportation system that is integrated into a robust and reliable electrical grid that relies heavily on locally generated renewable energy. Advanced battery technology and vehicles built to support them are at the core of his plan… I think his plan is great. I hope that A123, Better Place, Mission Motors and the companies that support them achieve the market penetrations their pitch book graphs said they could.

Woolsey’s speech in two lines or less:

The environmental case for renewables is strong, the economic case is compelling, and the geopolitical case is glaring.

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5 Comments

  1. Mike Overturf on

    Dubious? In what way is this dubious? Also, how is the prospective devaluation of oil to the level of salt simultaneous?

    And, yes, you’re right. You missed out on the cold war and the continuous threat of instantaneous nuclear annihilation. The only thing you could hope for is that it would be over for you quickly. This experience tends to lend a certain degree of visceral urgency to the topic of strategic threats, don’t you think? This is missing from the removed experience of watching movies or playing armageddon video games.

    Other than that, good writeup. Congratulations on the experience of meeting one of the great warrior poets this nation has.

  2. Dubious in that I was excited to be up there… but I must have looked like quite the pip-squeak sitting next to such a great speaker.

    I’m glad you called on me to expound on oil=salt; his much more elequent contention and argument goes like this:

    Salt kept food, it was a time consuming good to produce and even then it could only be made in certain regions. Transport was expensive, and the heavy importance of salt gave those that controlled the trade lots of clout. With the advent of electricity, we began to get ice boxes, and then eventually refrigerators.

    This was a complete technological leapfrog because it replaced salt, and your resulting food tasted better. Was salt still an important commodity, sure, but its geopolitical significance has been deeply affected.

    Help me out on your point surrounding MAD – I would like to comment, particularly given that I would contend that our geopolitical, economic and environmental threats are up for the challenge of creating a visceral sense of urgency – if only we would own up to it and bring strange political and social bedfellows to the same table…

  3. Mike Overturf on

    The point about Mutually Assured Destruction is this: one’s life and career was shaped by a connection between geopolitical events (what happens to and with the USSR), and the possibility that everything you know could cease to exist if those events went against us. With that in your genes (which Woolsey has), it’s easy to become emphatic about the personal consequences of actions that take place far away. This connection (e.g., what do I care about Wahhabi schools?) is easier to make.

  4. This is a thrilling trailer… Jim Woolsey has a snippet among some other serious outspoken energy leaders.

  5. Unless we empower ourselves with the terminology of the energy industry and that of renewable energy and energy efficiency governments will ignore the issues of a fully distributed renewable energy sector.

    The current discussion papers on the white paper for a national energy policy indicates a complete lack of priority for renewable energy and energy efficiency. Clearly it is large translational mining companies and the, coal and gas power generating corporations that are shaping energy policy in this country.

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