Energy Thinkers Ponder The FutureBy The New York Times
Senator Barack Obama has said that energy issues will be near the top of his presidential agenda, and he will have plenty to wrestle with — foreign oil, climate change, renewable energy and green jobs, to name a few.
In the wake of Mr. Obama’s decisive victory on Tuesday night, Green Inc. contacted experts from a variety of fields with four questions relating to the energy priorities and pitfalls facing the new administration. Their e-mailed responses were a mix of high expectations and sober realism.
Vaclav Smil, a professor at the University of Manitoba who has authored numerous books on global energy issues, told us informally that anyone expecting Mr. Obama to “transform the world” will be quickly disabused of the idea — particularly when it comes to energy policy. “The degree of disappointment that must follow such a gross naivete will be phenomenal,” Mr. Smil wrote.
“There will be precious little of any rapid change,” he added, “as energy systems are inherently inertial and as energy transitions take decades to accomplish. Besides, he will preside over a bankrupt nation.”
Also participating in our Q&A:
We’d like to thank all of them for participating. The questions, and their responses, follow.
a) The first priority needs to be truth-telling and public education. The fundamental shift needed in energy and climate policy will not be possible if presented to a public whose freshest memories are the devolved and simplistic rhetoric on energy that was the focus of the campaign prior to the economic meltdown. Our overwhelming and inefficient dependence on petroleum is an economic, security and environmental cancer, but oil – not just foreign oil – is the problem and the American people need “straight talk” about the realities of the world oil market and the realities of geology. “Drill, baby, drill” is not a solution to these challenges.
b) Climate policy and energy policy must be locked at the hip and the falsehood that good climate policy and good energy policy are in conflict needs to be debunked. Policies that invest in and increase energy efficiency should be among the first policies out the door – this allows a discussion about both reducing energy costs and reducing greenhouse gases as one and the same. A national goal and a concrete plan to increase our efficiency across the board should be job one.
c) Next would be a roadmap for both transitioning to cleaner fossil fuel and substitution of low and zero-carbon energy sources (of all types) for our old and inefficient fossil resources.
Explain to the nation that the Americans, who consume twice as much energy per capita as rich Europeans (and have nothing to show for it, as they are not richer, do not live longer, are not better educated and do not work less) should embark on a long road of trying to live within some sensible limits, which means less and not more. Everything else is quite secondary.
a) Promote transportation alternatives that can help ease U.S. dependence on foreign oil. A leading candidate is the widespread development and deployment of plug-in hybrid electric vehicles, which can travel 40 miles on an electric charge before using any gasoline.
b) Accelerate the research and development of low-carbon energy technologies.
c) Promote policies that will help spur the siting and construction of badly needed new transmission facilities in the United States, along with policies that will help accelerate the development of a more efficient “smart grid” with advanced metering infrastructure.
Daniel J. Weiss
The most immediate priorities should include: 1) Enactment of an economic stimulus package that includes clean energy measures that will increase jobs, while decreasing energy use and bills. This would include funds for weatherization of schools and low-income homes, pending transit projects and other similar efficiency programs. 2) Approval of California’s petition to set greenhouse gas limits for motor vehicles, which 16 other states will also adopt. 3) Approval of an “endangerment finding” under the Clean Air Act, which would enable E.P.A. to begin to control greenhouse gases from power plants and other sources. The Supreme Court set this in motion with the decision in Massachusetts v. E.P.A.
Maintain current energy-related jobs, create new energy-related jobs and ensure energy-intensive industries don’t shed jobs because of volatile energy prices. In other words — jobs, jobs, jobs.
Voters’ economic fears drove the election. The White House and the Congress will make the economy their top priority or pay the consequences.
As a strategic matter, the first thing to do is to make clear that America is serious about a new energy future, and that the days of delay and stonewalling by Big Carbon are over. The new President should do this by reversing the two worst Bush executive actions — the refusal to grant the California Clean Car Waiver, and the refusal to treat carbon dioxide as an air pollutant under the Clean Air Act.
The second step is to begin serious investments in high-performance energy productivity improvements — in particular those which create huge numbers of immediate jobs. Public and private building retrofits, mass transit improvements, and grid modernization should be part of any economic recovery package. The remaining necessary steps to 100 percent renewable energy should come immediately afterwards.
And the third is to prepare the United States to rejoin the world effort to stop global warming by getting Congress to commit to a diminishing cap that will ensure that U.S. carbon emissions decline by 80 percent by mid-century — and using the revenues from auctioning carbon permits issued under that cap to finance the energy investments in future years when restoring fiscal sanity, not economic stimulus, will be the priority.
The combination of linking climate and energy policy, along with an industrial policy (yes, we need to say this) aimed at creating green industry in the United States will mean a much larger role for renewable energy. But we can’t ask renewables to do it all, which is why a truly transformational energy policy will mean more renewables AND an emphasis on efficiency, more efficient fossil fuel use and nuclear.
Who knows? Renewables will require enormous subsidies and the country has $60 trillion debt.
Our industry strongly supports further integration of renewable electricity sources, which clearly will be front-and-center in the new administration and Congress. This also is the fastest-growing electricity generation sector. Congress took an important step in October by extending for one year the federal Production Tax Credit, which helps support renewable sources like wind, solar and biomass. But more can be done, including a longer-term extension of the P.T.C. Moreover, new transmission facilities will be needed to move larger amounts of renewable electricity generation from remote locations to large population centers where it is consumed.
Daniel J. Weiss
President-elect Obama and new senators and representatives campaigned on an agenda of economic stimulus, recovery and growth driven by investments in renewable energy and efficiency. Their election should speed the adoption of these policies.
We need a diverse energy portfolio that includes coal, oil and gas, nuclear and renewables. However, the public seems to be in no mood to pay a premium for its energy choices. Everyone will have to be competitive.
They are a stunning signal from the American people that they understand that a new energy future is the key to economic recovery and middle-class jobs. “New Energy for America” trumped “Drill, baby, drill” in race after race. When the best news for Big Carbon is that James Inhofe did win reelection in Oklahoma, things are very bright for a low-carbon, clean future. A U.S. Senate with two Udalls in it is huge for a different energy future.
Unlikely, but that’s O.K. While we work toward cap-and-trade, the measures and investments we can make to turn low-carbon energy and energy efficiency into a vibrant and growing economic engine will set the stage for passage of a cap-and-trade bill – a stage that is not yet set.
If it passes it will only further cripple America’s industries (but that is apparently fine with the New Messiah, who said three days ago that he wants to destroy the U.S. coal industry) – while China will make up any difference in emissions in about two months. No limits make any sense without China and India, the biosphere responds to marginal additions of the gas, no matter where it comes from.
Accomplishing that in a single year would be a very ambitious timetable, given the complexity of the issue. Our industry supports enactment of federal climate change legislation with a timetable aligned with the availability of existing technology and the development and deployment of new technologies needed to do the job, e.g., advanced clean coal with carbon capture and storage.
Daniel J. Weiss
With leadership from President-elect Obama, and new senators and representatives, the 111th Congress will pass a cap-and-trade program that reduces green house gases and invests in clean energy.
“It’s the economy, stupid.” It won’t be enough to say we are creating new green energy jobs when you and your neighbor are losing the good jobs you already have.
The president and Congress will only be able to pass a climate bill if they can find ways to substantially mitigate the costs of proposals that are currently on the table — not impossible, but very difficult. The Senate balked last year on a climate bill largely because it ran the numbers and didn’t like the results.
The pencils are really going to be sharpened in the current economic environment. The National Mining Association has worked hard to develop proposals that would address climate while holding down the costs to consumers and preserving jobs.
Very likely, although it is possible that what will pass this year will be the structure and outlines of such a bill, with the details to be filled in after Copenhagen. The key is that the public already understands that launching the clean energy revolution is the key BOTH to restoring the economy and to protecting the climate — the carbon lobby will try to pitch this as a trade-off, but that dog no longer hunts. Congress may not get it at first, but Obama has the mandate to see that the public will is respected.
That’s the wrong question. The test should be that after four years our dependence on oil as the lifeblood of our transportation system has been decreased. A shift away from oil is the only way to “sever our dependence on foreign oil.” Just buying the same amount of oil from countries other than Venezuela, Russia and the Persian Gulf will not in any way limit the global strategic influence of these producers and it will do nothing to reduce GHGs.
Only if there is a deep and lasting economic recession that cuts the demand. If some more or less normal situation returns, then the U.S. will be as dependent (cutting the dependence utmost by a few percent) as before. No real hope on that score, unless the economy collapses.
Oil comprises just two percent of our industry’s electricity generation portfolio — but innovations like the plug-in hybrid electric vehicle (P.H.E.V.), once it has achieved widespread adoption, can begin to make a serious dent in oil imports. The P.H.E.V. also can help significantly decrease carbon emissions.
Daniel J. Weiss
The Obama administration will reduce U.S. oil consumption due to the prompt implementation of new fuel economy standards under the Energy Independence Act of 2007. Investments in energy efficiency should also reduce U.S. oil dependency.
Consumers may do it themselves by driving less and using more fuel-efficient cars. In four years, there’s not much Congress or the president can do to substantially move the needle absent making imported oil more expensive, and that’s not a step anyone is going to be prepared to take.
Wrong question. Closer absolutely. The test is whether in four years we can confidently project the date when that dependence is going to be ended — if so, that event will be reflected in the world price of oil. The danger is that Congress will try to take small steps, when what we need is game changers.