The U.S. Needs a New Energy Policy ... Now
Continued from previous page
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.