Three energy steps for a new president

Published 11:39 pm Friday, September 19, 2008

By Staff
Next January, a new president will take office, confronting a multitude of serious issues, including rising fuel costs, energy security, climate change, and rising unemployment. When you evaluate the candidates based on their proposed solutions for reinventing the way America produces its energy to deal with these issues, do you know what to look for?
Here are three real solutions that are more than just good suggestions. They are essential components of a successful energy policy, which, when deployed together, create an impact much greater than the sum of their parts. Each one is an achievable, affordable step that won’t demand major sacrifices in the way Americans live their lives.
Step one is to invest in energy efficiency. Many people mistakenly believe that energy efficiency is simply a personal virtue and not a policy issue. Nothing could be further from the truth. Increased energy efficiency sets the stage for success in meeting our energy needs with cleaner sources.
In fact, a 2007 report facilitated by the U.S. Department of Energy states that sound energy efficiency measures can reduce our nation’s energy demand growth by 50 percent by 2025. More ambitious studies by the Rocky Mountain Institute report we can achieve 75 percent by 2020.
But don’t just take the experts’ words for it. Consider Juneau, Alaska, a city cut off from its power supply last April after an avalanche destroyed several major transmission towers. In response, the city cut its energy use by 30 percent in a matter of weeks. What Juneau did in a few weeks this spring, the nation can (and should, and will … with the right leadership) do over the next 10 years.
Step two is to invest in clean energy. Critical to any serious energy policy, wind and solar energy represent homegrown sources of electricity that can do the job right now. Already, in several markets, wind energy is cost-competitive with natural gas, and for both wind and solar, prices are coming down.
Many people mistakenly assume that solar power can’t do the job because of unpredictable weather, or that a full-scale conversion to solar power isn’t cost-effective. Neither assumption is correct. Consider Germany, a country that shares more latitude with Canada than with the United States. Germany is now the leading producer of solar energy not only in Europe, but also in the world (and this with only half as many sunny days as southern European countries, like Portugal). A good deal of Germany’s success is due to sound energy policy, passed in 2000, requiring old-fashioned utilities to support solar start-ups.
As to the cost misperception, a 2008 Solar Catalyst Group study shows that solar energy will become cost-competitive in most areas of the country by 2015. The same report shows how solar energy, with the right commitment, could easily make up 50 percent of the United States’ power supply by 2050. Others are even more ambitious. A January 2008 Scientific American article put the figure closer to 70 percent by 2050.
Step three is to invest in cleaner cars. With fuel economy standards remaining virtually unchanged for 30 years, the time is long past for our leaders to pass laws favoring cleaner cars. If we had adopted President Jimmy Carter’s energy policy, automobile fuel efficiency would be nearly 45 mpg today. We wouldn’t be importing foreign oil, and gasoline price increases wouldn’t be so painful.
On the road today is the first generation of plug-in electric hybrid vehicles getting up to 100 mpg, with all of the major auto manufacturers preparing to bring such a car to market in 2010.
Unlike corn ethanol (which generates greenhouse-gases in its production, and appropriates cropland necessary for growing food), PHEVs represent a true solution for how to power our cars responsibly. What’s more, in combination with an investment in renewables, the wind or the sun (a PHEV’s battery recharges by plugging into the electricity grid) can supply most of the power for PHEVs. A PHEV powered by the sun today costs its owner the equivalent of $2.30 a gallon.
These three solutions should be part of any leader’s platform, and each comes with an embedded bonus — the good jobs that come with producing this technology here in the United States. Buildings can’t be made efficient by workers overseas, solar energy can’t be outsourced and all Americans benefit when a clean energy policy delivers jobs, energy security and a clean environment all at once.