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The U.S. Needs a New Energy Policy ... Now

Only a dramatic change in course -- governed by an entirely new policy framework -- can reduce the risk of catastrophe and set the nation on a wise energy trajectory.
 
 
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This story is from a new special issue of The Nation on energy. Read morehere.

If the ecological catastrophe in the Gulf of Mexico tells us anything, it is that we need a new national energy policy—a comprehensive plan for escaping our dangerous reliance on fossil fuels and creating a new energy system based on climate-safe alternatives. Without such a plan, the response to the disaster will be a hodgepodge of regulatory reforms and toughened environmental safeguards but not a fundamental shift in behavior. Because our current energy path leads toward greater reliance on fuels acquired from environmentally and politically hazardous locations, no amount of enhanced oversight or stiffened regulations can avert future disasters like that unfolding in the gulf. Only a dramatic change in course—governed by an entirely new policy framework—can reduce the risk of catastrophe and set the nation on a wise energy trajectory.

By far the most important part of this strategy must be a change in the overarching philosophy that steers decisions on how much energy the United States should seek to produce, of what sorts and under what conditions. It may not seem as if we operate under such a philosophy today, but we do—one that extols growth over all other considerations, that privileges existing fuels over renewables and that ranks environmental concerns below corporate profit. Until we replace this outlook with one that places innovation and the environment ahead of the status quo, we will face more ecological devastation and slower economic dynamism. Only with a new governing philosophy—one that views the development of climate-friendly energy systems as the engine of economic growth—can we move from our current predicament to a brighter future.

One way to appreciate the importance of this shift is to consider the guiding policies of other countries. In March, I had the privilege of attending an international energy conference at Fuenlabrada, just outside Madrid. I sat transfixed as one top official after another of Spain's socialist government spelled out their vision of the future—one in which wind and solar power would provide an ever increasing share of the nation's energy supply and make Spain a leader in renewable energy technology. Other speakers described strategies for "greening" old cities—adding parks, farms, canals and pedestrian plazas in neglected neighborhoods. Around me were a thousand university students—enthralled by the prospect of creative and rewarding jobs in architecture, engineering, technology and the sciences. This, I thought, is what our own young people need to look forward to.

Instead, we are governed by an obsolete, nihilistic energy philosophy. To fully comprehend the nature of our dilemma, it is important to recognize that the gulf disaster is a direct result of the last governing blueprint adopted by this country: the National Energy Policy of May 17, 2001, better known as the Cheney plan. This framework, of which the former vice president was the lead author, called for increased drilling in wilderness areas, such as the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, as well as in the deep waters of the Gulf of Mexico. Congress did not permit drilling in ANWR, but it wholeheartedly embraced wider exploitation of the deepwater gulf. To speed these efforts, the Bush administration encouraged the Minerals Management Service to streamline the issuing of permits to giant oil firms like BP to operate in these waters. BP clearly took shortcuts when drilling offshore—thus inviting the blowout on April 20—but it did so in a permissive atmosphere established by the 2001 policy framework.

The 2001 energy plan was devised with substantial input from the energy industry—no representatives of the environmental community were invited to the secret meetings held by Dick Cheney to prepare it—and was widely viewed as a payoff to Bush/Cheney supporters in the oil industry. But it was far more than that: at its core, the plan embodied a distinctive outlook on the role of energy in the economy and how that energy should be supplied. This outlook held that cheap and abundant energy is an essential driver of economic growth and that the government's job is to ensure that plentiful energy is endlessly available. As noted by President Bush at the time, "The goals of this strategy are clear: to ensure a steady supply of affordable energy for America's homes and businesses and industries." But not just any sort of energy. In deference to the executives of Chevron, Enron, ExxonMobil and the other energy giants that helped elect Bush in 2000, the plan aimed to extend the life of the nation's existing energy profile, with its overwhelming reliance on oil, coal, natural gas and nuclear power.

However, a strategy aimed at producing more energy while maintaining reliance on traditional fuels was inherently problematic. Although the concept of "peak oil" was not then in widespread circulation, energy experts were becoming increasingly aware of the impending scarcity of conventional oil—i.e., liquid crude acquired from easily accessible reservoirs. Concerns were also growing about the future availability of easily accessible coal and natural gas. The only way to supply more energy while preserving the existing energy profile, Cheney and his allies concluded, was to increase the level of environmental and political risk, whether by drilling in wilderness areas and the deepwater gulf or by procuring more energy from dangerous and unfriendly areas, such as the Middle East, Africa and the former Soviet Union. This became the underlying premise of the 2001 energy plan and underlies much of the global violence and environmental devastation unleashed by Bush during his eight years in office.

Adherence to the Cheney plan has had another significant downside: it has focused energy investment on the extension of the existing energy paradigm rather than on introducing renewable energy systems. Far greater funds have been devoted to, say, deep offshore drilling and the extraction of gas from shale rock than to advancing wind and solar power. As a result, the United States has fallen behind China, Germany, Japan and Spain in developing next-generation energy systems, jeopardizing our future competitiveness in the global economy.

The philosophy that produced these disasters—"more energy of the existing types at whatever the risk"—must now be repudiated and replaced by a new, forward-looking alternative that stresses innovation and environmental protection. Such an outlook would replace each component of the Bush/Cheney philosophy with its opposite. Instead of growth at any price, it would emphasize energy sufficiency—the minimum amount needed to accomplish vital tasks. Instead of clinging to existing, environmentally damaging fuels, it would harness America's ingenuity in the development of new, climate-friendly fuels. And instead of embracing environmental and political risk as a solution to scarcity and excessive greed, it would favor domestically produced, renewable systems that largely eliminate the element of risk. To compress this into a nutshell, the new outlook would favor energy that's "clean, green, safe and smart."

What, in practice, would this entail?

First, let's take a closer look at "sufficiency"—the basis for all else. By energy sufficiency, I mean enough energy to meet basic consumer and industrial needs without succumbing to a bias for waste and inefficiency, as is now the case. For example, if X number of American commuters must drive Y number of miles every day to work, sufficient energy would be the amount needed to power the most fuel-efficient personal or public-transit vehicles available, rather than the most inefficient. Likewise, sufficient heating energy would be the amount needed to heat American homes and businesses if all were equipped with the most efficient heating and insulation systems. A wise energy policy would aim to provide whatever is needed when all reasonable measures for efficiency have been factored in—and no more than that. Of course, the transition from inefficient to efficient transportation, heating and industrial systems will be costly at first (the costs will go way down over time), so a wise policy would provide subsidies and incentives to facilitate the transition.

Defining what constitutes sufficient energy will require considerable time and effort. But thanks to visionaries like Amory Lovins of the Rocky Mountain Institute, enough is known about the potential energy savings of various conservation and efficiency initiatives to be confident that our economy can produce more in the years ahead using far less energy. Likewise, Americans can lead equally satisfying lives with less energy use. For example, if every car owner in America drove a gas/electric hybrid or superefficient conventional vehicle instead of one getting about twenty miles per gallon (the current national average), we could reduce our daily oil intake by as much as 4–5 million barrels per day (of a total consumption of approximately 20 million barrels). And if the hybrids were of a plug-in type that could recharge their batteries at night when power plants have surplus capacity, the oil requirement could be reduced by several million more barrels without requiring additional power plants. Clearly, we don't need more oil to satisfy our transportation needs; we need more efficiency.

By seeking energy sufficiency instead of constant growth, we free ourselves of a tremendous burden. It is impossible to keep expanding the net supply of energy and reduce our dependence on fossil fuels and uranium-powered fission; the only sure way to achieve growth is to supply more of every fuel available. Once you abandon the commitment to growth, however, it is possible to begin the truly critical task: reducing our reliance on traditional fuels while significantly increasing the share of energy provided by alternatives.

To put things in perspective, fossil fuels now provide about 84 percent and nuclear power about 8.5 percent of America's net energy supply; renewables, including hydropower, provide a mere 8 percent. Although the amount of energy provided by renewables is expected to grow in the years ahead, the United States is projected to need so much more energy under its current path—114.5 quadrillion British thermal units per year in 2035, compared with approximately 100 quadrillion today—that it will need much larger amounts of oil, gas and coal to supply the necessary increase. As a result, says the Energy Department, we will rely more on fossil fuels in 2035 than we do today, and will be emitting greater quantities of carbon dioxide.

Clearly, the existing path leads us ever closer to environmental catastrophe. Only by freezing (and eventually reducing) the total amount of energy consumed and reversing the ratio between traditional and alternative fuels can disaster be averted. A progressive energy policy would aim to achieve a ratio of 50:50 between traditional and renewable fuels by 2030, and by 2050 would confine fossil fuels and nuclear power to a small "niche" market.

Accepting the necessity of switching to noncarbon alternatives, what are the "clean, green and safe" fuels that America should rely on? Any source of energy chosen to meet the nation's future requirements should meet several criteria: it must be renewable, affordable, available domestically and produce zero or very low amounts of greenhouse gas emissions. Several fuels satisfy two or three of these qualities, but only one—wind power—meets all of them. When located at reliably windy spots and near major transmission lines, wind turbines are competitive with most existing sources of energy and have none of their disadvantages. Solar power comes close to wind in its appeal, possessing great utility for certain applications (such as rooftop water heating); still, electricity derived from existing photovoltaic cells remains uncompetitive with other fuels in most situations. Geothermal, tidal and wave energy show great promise but will need considerable development to be commercially applicable on a large scale. Biofuels derived from cellulose or algae also look promising, but they, too, require more work. Further out on the development path are hydrogen and nuclear fusion; it will take at least another generation or two before they will achieve widespread commercial utility.

Some within the environmental community argue for short-term reliance on some combination of natural gas, nuclear fission and coal, using the carbon capture and storage process as a "bridge" to renewable fuels, recognizing America's slow start in adopting the latter. While a case can be made for each of these, not one is clean, green and safe. Natural gas, while emitting less carbon dioxide than other fossil fuels, is increasingly being derived from shale rock through the environmentally risky process known as "hydraulic fracturing" [see Kara Cusolito, "The Next Drilling Disaster?" June 3]. Nuclear fission produces radioactive waste that cannot be stored safely. Likewise, there is no assurance that carbon separated from coal can be stored safely for long periods of time. It follows that a wise policy would seek to leapfrog these technologies and move as rapidly as possible to renewable sources of energy.

With this in mind, the basic goal of a new national energy policy should be to minimize the use of existing fuels while ramping up the development and use of truly green alternatives—which requires not just technological innovation but a concerted effort to bring the new technologies to scale in the market, as Christian Parenti argues in the following article. The transition will also require a change in the way energy is distributed. At present a large share of our energy, in the form of oil, natural gas and coal, is delivered by pipeline, rail and truck. Most renewables, however, will be delivered in the form of electricity. This will require a massive expansion of the nation's electrical system—and its transformation into a "smart grid" that can rapidly move energy from areas of strong wind or sun (depending on weather conditions) to areas of peak need. A smart grid would also allow people to install their own energy-generating systems—solar panels, wind turbines, hydrogen fuel cells—and sell surplus energy back to the system.

Specifically, this policy would seek to:

  •  dramatically increase the use of wind power by adding more turbines and by increasing links to an expanded national electrical grid;
  •  increase the efficiency and cost-effectiveness of solar energy, especially photovoltaics and solar-thermal power;
  •  accelerate the development of geothermal, tidal and wave power as well as biofuels derived from cellulose and algae, and expand research on hydrogen fuel cells and nuclear fusion;
  •  create a national "smart grid" capable of absorbing a vast increase in wind, solar, geothermal and wave power and delivering it to areas of greatest need;
  • spur the development, production and acquisition of super-energy-efficient vehicles, buildings, appliances and industrial processes;
  • accelerate the transition from conventional vehicles to hybrids, from regular hybrids to plug-in hybrids and from hybrids to all-electric automobiles;
  • encourage and facilitate greater personal reliance on intercity rail, public transit, bicycles and walking.

To achieve these goals, the government will have to assemble policy tools and funding devices. All incentives and subsidies for fossil fuel extraction and nuclear fission should be phased out, and like amounts directed toward the development of promising renewables and the further modernization and expansion of the electrical grid. Liberal tax breaks should be awarded to households and small businesses that invest in energy-saving heating, cooling and lighting systems; similar breaks should be offered for the purchase of hybrid and electric vehicles. Many key initiatives, such as the construction of regional high-speed rail lines, will be costly. To finance such endeavors, taxes on gasoline and other carbon-based fuels should be increased as payroll taxes are decreased, thus encouraging job growth while discouraging carbon pollution; rebates should also be given to cushion the effect on low-income people. In addition, a ten-year, $250 billion energy innovation fund should be established to provide low-interest loans for commercializing promising new technologies being developed at universities and start-up firms around the country; once repaid, these funds could then be used to fund other such endeavors.

The Cheney plan envisioned, among other goals, building 1,000 new nuclear power plants by 2030. By contrast, the new energy policy envisioned here would have the following goals:

  • create 5 million jobs through the pursuit of a green energy revolution, with a focus on the construction and manufacturing sectors, as outlined by the nonprofit group the Apollo Alliance;
  • maximize the nation's energy efficiency—in transportation, heating, electricity and all other sectors—such that total energy demand declines by at least 50 percent by 2050, as documented in a comprehensive study by Greenpeace International and the European Renewable Energy Council;
  • phase out oil consumption, except in niche markets, by 2030;
  • formalize the current de facto moratorium on constructing new coal-fired power plants, phase out existing plants as well and halt all coal use by 2020;
  • supply at least 75 percent of US electricity from wind, solar and other renewable sources by 2030 and 99 percent by 2050, as described in the Greenpeace-EREC study;
  • shift the US vehicle fleet to all-electric cars by 2035, to be powered with renewable energy;
  • reduce US greenhouse gas emissions (from 1990 levels) by at least 90 percent by 2050, as described in the Greenpeace-EREC study.

There is not enough space here to argue the case for each of these specifics, but the essential elements of the new energy policy our nation needs are these: a guiding philosophy, a vision of the intended outcome, an assessment of the possible energy sources and an outline of tools for implementation. Each of the final three can be modified as necessary to account for global events and scientific advances; but adherence to the first is critical. Adopting an enlightened new philosophy to guide our nation's future energy plans is the single most valuable thing we can do in the wake of the Deepwater Horizon tragedy.

Michael T. Klare is a Nation defense correspondent and professor of peace and world security studies at Hampshire College.
 
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