Dr. Richard Muller, author of “Energy for Future Presidents”, speaks on EV’s and natural gas

Dr. Richard Muller is well-known for his popular science book and UC Berkeley course “Physics for Future Presidents”. While that volume explores a number of science and technology topics that a president might face including bio-terrorism, nuclear war, and space exploration, his latest volume “Energy for Future Presidents” focuses solely on energy through the lenses of energy security and climate change. Muller, a professor of physics at UC Berkeley and Faculty Senior Scientist at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, has devoted much of the past five years to understanding our climate problem and our global energy system.

Last week, I had the opportunity to sit down with Dr. Muller and ask him a set of questions related to the transport sector and U.S. energy security. While his book is entitled “Energy for Future Presidents”, I also asked him to ponder “energy for current presidents” as well. The video embedded above shows Muller’s responses to the following questions:

1. Who killed the electric car?
2. What is the potential for hybrid vehicles and natural gas vehicles?
3. What was Obama’s best policy in his first term for energy security?
4. What should Obama’s policy priorities be in his second term if he puts an equal emphasis on energy security and global warming?

A flavor of skepticism is consistently present in Muller’s book, as it should be. Muller advocates for a good dose of skepticism in all scientists, and indeed it was his climate skepticism which drove him to complete an ambitious study of surface temperatures to confirm that climate change indeed was occurring and was caused by humans. He also frequently reminds the reader to be wary of “optimism bias” in the field of energy. We all have our favorite technology, something we prefer even if we know deep down it may not be the silver bullet to affordable, clean energy for all. He warns strongly against support for electric vehicles, due to the question of battery cost and lifetime. And yet, I wonder if he doesn’t also play favorites himself. Given his avid support of California’s climate change bill AB32, you might think he would have highlighted a carbon tax or national cap and trade program as Obama’s top policy priority in his second term. But Muller highlighted incentives for increased natural gas infrastructure instead. Perhaps, this is a stroke of political realism and not technology favoritism.

Throughout the book, Muller also keeps the reader aware of public perception of politically risky energy policies, say for instance the support of nuclear power in the wake of Fukushima or support of energy technology cooperation with a rising China. Yet, he remains a science adviser in this volume, and nothing more. Science has all the answers, but it is the job of the president to communicate these answers — often a delivery of tough medicine amidst a range of misconceptions or mixed priorities. On solar, he says in his book:

Already US solar companies are being driven out of business by the cheaper Chinese cells. What’s the solution? How do you balance the value of a vigorous Chinese industry with the value of a vigorous US industry? Whatever the answer is, it’s beyond the ability of a scienceĀ advisorĀ to advise. Good luck with this one.

Even if Muller doesn’t have all the answers, you won’t regret reading this book. And all in good preparation because, hey, you might be president one day.