THE B PRIZE….Speaking at Fresno State University today, John McCain offered a new plank in his energy plan:

Presumed Republican presidential nominee John McCain on Monday proposed a $300 million prize to develop a car battery that will “leapfrog” today’s plug-in hybrids.

….His $300 million car battery prize is meant to spur creativity among automakers to make energy-efficient products. “This is 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 — and should deliver a power source at 30 percent of the current costs,” he said.

McCain didn’t offer any details about what it would take to win his prize, but that’s OK. I’m sure his campaign boffins can come up with something reasonable on that score. And even though it’s mostly a stunt, I don’t really have a problem with proposing prizes like this. If it doesn’t work no harm is done, and if it does work it’s a cheap way of spurring innovation.

But what I’m curious about is why conservatives are so ga-ga over the whole prize concept in the first place. Prizes for spaceflight, prizes for batteries, prizes for cancer cures, prizes and more prizes. They really seem to love the idea, despite the fact that there’s no special reason to think it will work. And the numbers they toss out are always ridiculously low. It’s not as if battery development is currently some kind of big government boondoggle, after all. Lots of private sector companies are working on new battery technology, and they’re doing it because the potential market is worth tens of billions of dollars. An extra $300 million isn’t really much of an incentive at all.

So why the enthusiasm? I guess it seems more free market-ish than doling out research grants, but if you’re dedicated to market solutions why would you think the market needs the extra boost in the first place? It’s all very strange. But relatively harmless, I suppose, and possibly worth experimenting with.

Speaking of batteries, though, here’s a question. Lots of energy technologies (coal, wood, oil, uranium, etc.) seem like great ideas until you scale them up to service a planet of 6 billion people. Then it suddenly turns out that they create lots of problems. So how about batteries? What would happen if we needed to manufacture not a few thousand car-sized batteries a year, but a few billion? Could we do it? What would it take? Are there disposal issues when we reach that kind of scale? I can’t find anyone talking about this, but I have to believe that if we managed to electrify our energy economy this would become a pretty serious issue. Anyone know anything more about this?

UPDATE: That was quick! Stuart Staniford emails to say that he took a look at “some aspects” of battery scaling a while back, which, knowing Stuart, probably means he kept himself to under 10,000 words on the subject. Sure enough, here it is. Scroll down to “Building Four Billion Plugin Hybrids.”

Short version: get ready for Peak Lithium. The best battery technologies use lithium, and the world has about 13 megatons of lithium reserves, which if fully used would be enough to power 4 billion cars for 55 miles per day. Not bad, but it’s obviously a constraint (and this assumes that we recycle the lithium from used batteries very efficiently).

For a more alarmist take, see William Tahil’s “The Trouble With Lithium.” On the bright side, though, Tahil suggests there are alternative battery technologies that might be better anyway. And who knows? Maybe John McCain’s $300 million prize will spur some basement inventor to invent a battery that runs on seawater.

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