We have an energy problem in this country. Our government, like our businesses, looks to the next political quarter instead of the long term. A few weeks ago, President Obama spoke to reporters about the need to create a long-term energy strategy, and reduce our dependence on oil. Unfortunately, each of the last seven Presidents has said exactly the same thing. I personally defended Persian Gulf Oil in the Middle East, enforcing United Nations sanctions against Iraq, which amounted to an oil embargo. I saw the United States Fifth Fleet, based in Bahrain, up close. I can say that maintaining a base in Bahrain does not come cheap. Why do I bring this up? Our government spends a substantial amount of money subsidizing energy. Additionally, the government does not regulate carbon, which means the external costs of the greenhouse gas emissions are borne by the general public. Finally, fossil fuels have significant health impacts. Over 10,000 people a year die from the particles emitted by coal-fired plants. Additionally, hundreds of miners die quietly around the world. As we watch the nuclear calamity that is taking place in Japan, it would be wise for us to consider the role of the Federal Government in creating this energy policy, and the failure of President after President to chart a new course for the United States with regards to energy policy.
We have an elaborate electricity grid, an infrastructure that badly needs modernized. Consumers are ignorant for the most part about where their electricity comes from, they just want to be able to flip the switch and power their gear, without having to pay too much. Unfortunately, the myth of cheap energy has Americans convinced that it is our divine right to $.99/gallon gasoline and cheap electricity. Our development in sprawled across the country, and people still pine for that isolated lot with two acres and a great view. Unfortunately, without cheap energy, our house of cards will fall apart.
The Federal Government is positioned to help bring our country into the 21st Century. First of all, our electricity infrastructure needs updated. One agency that has a big role in the energy sector is the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC). FERC has jurisdiction over interstate electricity transmission, through the Public Utilities Regulatory Policy Act (PURPA). FERC is attempting to build new, modernized high power transmission lines for renewable energy; however, they face opposition at both the state level as well as from utility trade groups like the Coalition for Fair Transmission Policy. The commission represents utilities that want to make sure the costs of those lines are borne by the folks getting the power. Ultimately, between NIMBY concerns over siting new lines, and fights over who will pay, these are many obstacles to creating a new infrastructure capable of empowering large-scale clean energy production. The Federal Government can also nurture decentralized, local renewable power generation through policies like Feed-in Tariffs.
With energy consumption in transportation, our sprawled development is problematic. Government needs to encourage smart growth, as it will pay dividends on lowering per capita energy consumption. For example, in Southeastern Massachusetts, a commuter rail line is being designed to consider smart growth when planning station locations. However, transportation consumption revolves around the automobile. The Obama administration did a good job of getting automobile manufacturers to support a significant increase in CAFE standards. While it is not as progressive as Europe or Asia’s standards, it is still a significant improvement over Bush policies, and the rare effort that is supported by all stakeholders. One long-term issue for our transportation sector is what fuel will be used, and the infrastructure to use it. Right now we are invested in a gasoline infrastructure. Electricity is a more sensible step, but the authors here advocate for hydrogen. Hydrogen would require a significant investment in infrastructure; additionally, as a fuel, to provide the range expected of modern consumers, it must be highly pressurized – making it very difficult to use as a transportation fuel, especially in automobiles. Whatever route we go, it will be incumbent on the Federal Government to work with stakeholders to build the infrastructure necessary to support whatever becomes the ‘new’ fuel.
Ultimately, the main hurdle to the Federal Government charting a long-term energy policy is political will. President Clinton hit the third rail when he proposed a Carbon tax early in his first term. Both parties define prosperity around energy consumption. The Democrats frame clean energy development as “Green Jobs” but haven’t challenged the Republican Party, or the American people, to seriously confront climate change, peak oil, or the various external costs of fossil fuels. The myth of cheap energy goes on. As it does, so does the piecemeal Federal energy policy, from President to President.
We have an energy problem. At the end of the day, no energy source is free. We all want energy that is readily available, reliable, and without external costs. We want to be able to cheaply power our HDTV, our car, and our furnace. We want our supply chains to be affordable, so prices will be low. In short, we want the magic elixir that will allow us to carry on in our current configuration without having to change.
Unfortunately, we are painfully unaware of the external costs of the energy we produce. Gwyneth Cravens, on NPR’s Talk of the Nation, spoke about the cost of coal:
“But I would just like to remind people that over 10,000 people a year die in the United States alone from fine particulates from coal-fired plants, which, incidentally, spew out more – it’s a low-dose radioactive material, but burning coal concentrates uranium and radon – radium, and so on. And so in the coal ash, the waste which lies around in unlined pits, there’s enough in the coal ash of one big coal-fired plant to make about six atomic bombs, uranium 235. So the – and the stuff coming out of the stacks looks – you know, you don’t see the soot anymore so much, but you see – or you don’t – what you don’t see are these invisible gases, sulfur and nitrogen gases which turn into fine particulates when they’re combined with water vapor and get into the airways of our lungs and kill people with lung cancer and heart disease. So this is an ongoing catastrophe, along with ocean acidification. As the ocean takes up more carbon dioxide, the water becomes more acidic. This is beginning to affect shelled organisms like corals. They can’t make the calcium carbonate shells in the acidic waters. And so – and about three million people a year die from fossil fuel combustion pollution worldwide. We have to think about how to provide base-load electricity – that is 24/7, around-the-clock electricity. We are witnessing in Japan what happens when you don’t have electricity and how terrible that is for people from the health point of view alone.”
In Japan, we are seeing at Fukushima Daiichi what a 9.0 Earthquake and a massive tsunami can do to the best laid plans of mice and men. Opposition to wind turbines remains strong here in New England. In Rhode Island, where I live, there is ongoing opposition to a Liquid Natural Gas terminal in Mt. Hope Bay. More broadly, opposition is growing to hydrofracking of natural gas in the Marcellus Shale in Pennsylvania and across the country. Large scale renewable energy projects are challenged by environmentalists (like the large scale solar project in California) and by parents (opposition to the construction of high-power transmission lines). In individual communities, wealthy homeowners fight the construction of wind turbines and solar panels.
Does anyone else see this? We live under the myth that there is a cheap source of energy without cost out there. Our gasoline, which we import mostly, must be defended by the Fifth Fleet (in Bahrain, where Shiites are rising up against the Sunni king) and heavily subsidized. The greenhouse gas emissions from automobiles are not without cost, as much as denialists would like to believe. Because we remain under the spell of the cheap energy myth, some of us remain willing to accept the costs of hydrofracking (water) and coal (see above quote). We compare the cost of renewable energy to the cost of natural gas and coal, and ignore the external costs, and say that renewable energy is too expensive. Unfortunately, our cheap energy is simply not sustainable.
If we were smart, we would realize that 1) there is no perfect, cheap, elixir out there. We need to take into account the external costs and start planning a smart, renewable energy future. We would also realize that 2) NIMBY is the enemy of planning a smart energy future. People want to plug in their laptop or their iron, and remain ignorant of where that power comes from and how it arrives at their outlet. People want their homes to be just the right temperature in the summer and winter, and not recognize the cost of doing so. People want to live in the suburbs, and commute long distances to work, to karate practice, to visit Disneyland. Yet, people get upset when a wind turbine goes up, or when talk of a new transmission line starts. NIMBY is simply not sustainable. If we truly understood the costs of the energy we use, we would use less of it, we would be much more efficient, we would plan for the long term instead of just one quarter ahead.
What do we need? We need a smart grid, decentralized power generation, a diverse mixture of renewable energy, state of the art nuclear power, and some fossil fuels, and above all else we need to place a price on carbon. Energy will not be cheap, but we fool ourselves if we believe it is cheap today. We need to embrace the future, instead of wishing we could return back to 1890. If we don’t of course, we will eventually fall out of the cheap energy spell, but we will start kicking ourselves for not recognizing it sooner.
The controversy surrounding a proposed high voltage transmission line in El Centro, CA, which would potentially deliver wind, solar, and geothermal energy to San Diego, is instructive on the difficulties that will surround future renewable energy development.
El Centro has 110 degrees plus temperature, high wind, and readily available geothermal resources neat the San Andreas Fault. All told, there ate 16,000 MW of potential renewable energy in the area. However, some environmentalists want the utility to forego the project and simply develop rooftop solar in San Diego. Other critics worry about the fact that existing natural gas energy will be transmitted over the same line, and that the renewable energy claims are merely a smokescreen for a government-subsidized investment that will have a large ROI.
Michael W. Howard, president and chief executive of the Electric Power Research Institute, a nonprofit utility consortium based in Palo Alto, Calif., said that while the potential for exploiting renewable energy remains huge nationally, “you’ve got to get it from somewhere,” he said. “If you’re going to have renewables, you’d better love transmission.”
In the end, rooftop solar deserves development, but so does an area as resource rich as El Centro, especially with its low population. If we can’t build a transmission line in El Centro, we will certainly be unable to do it in more populated areas.