Pondering America’s energy future

Solar collector in Livermore, California

I went to a New Republic briefing this morning on the future of U.S. energy policy.  What stood out most were the rather impassioned remarks from Senator Kerry (D-MA), who is not generally known for displaying much emotion.  He opened his comments by describing America’s “ostrich-like” approach to energy: “I’ve had it up to here,” he said, motioning to just below his chin.  Every prediction made years ago about this issue is coming true but even faster, said Kerry.  We’ve been receiving countless “postcards from the edge,” he said; warnings and evidence that we are bringing about undesirable changes with our energy demands: pine beetle outbreaks no longer held in check by cold temperatures, lobsters and other marine life threatened by ocean acidification, record breaking heat waves and hurricanes.  And in response to all these warnings, asked Kerry, what have we done?  The answer: “Business as usual.”

And while Kerry allowed himself a few partisan digs—for example, we have a growing “flat Earth caucus”—he did quickly move on to more pragmatic arguments that echoed those made by others, such as former Republican California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger. That is, we should use common sense to move forward on cleaner energy sources because doing so will be good for our health, jobs and the economy, and national security.  Declaring that “we’re our own worst enemy,” Kerry said that he believes “America’s greatness, America’s capacity to lead, is really on the line.”

He pointed to the global competition in clean energy, noting that, according to a recent Pew study, China holds first place, leading the way in solar panel and wind turbine production.  Solar panel technology was invented in the U.S. decades ago by Bell Labs, yet China now exports this technology around the globe, selling it also to the U.S.  Germany has recently jumped to second place, bumping the U.S. to third.  While Germany is a far smaller country than the U.S., it has doubled its investment in cle an energy to $42.1 billion, while the U.S. invests $34 billion.

Earlier in the briefing, several other speakers offered their views on America’s energy future.  Jacques Besnainou, Chief Executive Officer with the nuclear power services provider AREVA Inc. argued that the U.S. must come to grips with its aging nuclear fleet, the “oldest in the world.”  Doing nothing is not an option, said Besnainou; if no action is taken, these plants will have to be retired in ten years.  Yet another panelist, Christopher Guith, Vice President for Policy at the Institute for 21st Century Energy, with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, argued that because natural gas is currently very cheap, the option of building expensive new nuclear plants is at a distinct disadvantage.  He argued economics—not public concern—is the number one reason nuclear energy appears to be going nowhere in this country.

Panelist Boyden Gray, Former W hite House Counsel, who helped craft the 1990 Clean Air Act under the George H. Bush administration, said that continued progress will require looking at emissions that come out of oil production because “we’ve gotten pretty much everything out of coal.”  Gray said that coal to liquid has tremendous potential which can’t be realized until the U.S. levels the playing field and regulates oil and diesel in the same way it regulates coal.

His fellow panelist Charles Ebinger, Director of the Brookings Institution’s Energy Security Initiative said that because the U.S. is the “Saudi Arabia of coal,” and because countries such as China and India will continue to use it, the U.S. should be a leader in developing solutions to capture carbon.

Ebinger also said that until the U.S. ponies up the necessary $300-400 billion for a modern electricity grid, renewable/clean energy won’t be possible at the large scale this country requires. The reason?  We need a way to move the solar and wind energy created in different pockets of the country to often far away areas where large populations actually live.  Besides the formidable fiscal hurdle, added Chamber of Commerce’s Guith, is the daunting challenge of laying transmission lines across state lines, a veritable “regulatory purgatory.”

Panelists also touched on what Ebinger called the “game changer” of shale gas deposits.  According to some estimates, he said, the U.S. could hold more shale gas than natural gas and could actually become an exporter to Europe.  Conceding that shale gas brings with it environmental concerns, both Ebinger and Guith argued that the main concern is avoiding contamination of public drinking water by finding ways to recycle the water used during shale “fracking.” Otherwise, said Guith, the risk is that water contaminated with “stuff that comes out of the Earth” during the process is not adequately decontaminated at water treatment plants which may be unprepared to handle such toxins.

Panelists Gray, Ebinger, and Guith seemed unified in their sentiment that the U.S. needs to pass some kind of energy policy that will address the issues they discussed and provide more certainty to U.S. energy industries across the spectrum.  Senator Kerry echoed this desire. But, he ended his remarks by declaring that “money is setting the agenda” beyond anything he has seen since coming to the Senate nearly 30 years ago.  He was referring to last year’s Supreme Court decision in Citizens United versus FEC that allows corporations to sink unlimited dollars into supporting or opposing state and federal candidates.  Those entities with their hands on the “cash cows” of oil, said Kerry, will want to keep milking it for every last drop.

Photo credits: Solar collector, DOE, Warren Gretz

Senator Kerry at New Republic briefing, Nadine Lymn, ESA

Wind turbines, NREL

Author: Nadine Lymn

ESA Director of Public Affairs

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