“More of the Above” Energy Policy
“American energy has become remarkably cleaner in the past twenty years; the marketplace, not government mandates, are driving today’s ingenuity in the energy sector; consumer cost and grid reliability are not of less concern than environmental goals; and no sensible energy policy moves us forward by leaving fossil fuels, hydro, and nuclear behind.”
Senator Jeff Bingaman’s Clean Energy Standard (CES) notably improves upon his earlier push to require utilities to generate 20% of their power from renewable sources such as solar and wind power (but not existing hydroelectricity and nuclear power, much less what might emerge from carbon capture technologies at coal plants).
This time around, there is a wider range of energy technologies to bring down the sticker shock of mandating politically correct (but market incorrect) energy to American electricity users. Still, the CES is a step back from a free market and thus a burden to consumers, taxpayers, and the overall economy.
What is ‘Clean’ Energy?
A real debate over clean energy, as opposed to renewable energy, is one that should have been had two years ago (and really back in the 1970s, when the current debate first got underway). Instead, in an effort to push politically popular technologies such as solar and wind, the congressional energy debate seemed to overlook technologies with much greater practical importance for America’s long-term energy future. They include:
- Emission-free nuclear power, to the extent it is commercially viable;
- Fossil-fuel technologies, including coal-fired power production, exponentially cleaner in the past twenty years (with the possibility through carbon capture of making even greater gains); and
- Hydropower, an often overlooked technology that is capable of adding significant megawatts to the grid with positive air-quality implications.
The truth is that no American energy future exists without contributions from some combination of these sources. To keep pace with energy demand, while maintaining the reliability and price that consumers deserve, the answer can’t simply be ‘all of the above’; it must be ‘more of the above.’
Today, without a CES, the first major development in American nuclear power is taking place in east Georgia with the construction of two units at Plant Vogtle. Soon, the Tennessee Valley Authority will commence completion of its long-mothballed Bellefonte Nuclear Plant in north Alabama.
These are important projects that would add thousands of megawatts to a Southeastern power grid currently grappling with the prospect of coal plant closures and growing populations. Without legislation incentivizing or demanding it, and without a national energy policy mandating it, our nation might have taken its first steps toward a nuclear renaissance.
But the fundamental question remains: Can nuclear power shed itself of overregulation where a true market can replace government loan guarantees as the arbiter of go-or-stop?
Meanwhile, environmental controls have drastically reduced major emissions from our most abundant energy resource, coal, with major emissions down more than 65% from twenty years ago. Carbon capture technology, now only in its very early stages, could reduce those figures far more.
That is why it is was disheartening recently to see news that the Mississippi Supreme Court has reversed the approval for a coal gasification project in Kemper County, Mississippi. This state-of-the-art project would have used native lignite coal in a combined cycle to produce significant power for the region. However, intense lobbying from groups such as the Sierra Club helped stop this important project in its tracks.
Without a CES, efforts are being made across the country to develop new hydropower technologies, once example being Free Flow Power, a firm pioneering underwater hydropower technology for use in the Mississippi River.
Because of its energy source, this project promises clean power with reliability greater than other renewables such as wind and solar. In other words, the marketplace is actively developing solutions to tomorrow’s energy landscape, without the hands of Congress guiding the way.
CES Better than PRS, But…
Bingaman’s CES certainly beats the prior Renewable Portfolio Standard (RPS) by creating fewer regional disparities in energy resources. Earlier versions of portfolio mandates accounted poorly for regional energy resources, creating clear winners and losers depending on geography. At the least, a well-designed CES would be broad enough to allow multiple solutions to the same problem, rather than trying to turn the rest of the U.S. into California.
Any CES must be factually and realistically debated. It must acknowledge that American energy has become remarkably cleaner in the past twenty years; that the marketplace, not government mandates, are driving today’s ingenuity in the energy sector; that consumer cost and grid reliability are not of less concern than environmental goals; and that no sensible energy policy moves us forward by leaving fossil fuels, hydro, and nuclear behind.
Lance Brown is Executive Director of the Partnership for Affordable Clean Energy (PACE), which promotes fair, sensible national energy policies in the face of climate-change exaggeration and punitive public-policy activism. Brown regularly addresses community and civic organizations; interacts with the media on energy issues,; and publishes a regular column in The National Journal. He also has served on a consumer board for the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA).
As part of PACE’s efforts to educate American consumers and policy makers about current energy issues, Brown directed a mini-documentary, Unplugged: Reconnecting American Energy Policy with Reality.
A native of Selma, Alabama, Brown is a Harry S. Truman Scholar who holds a B.A. from the University of Southern Mississippi and a Master of Public Administration from Auburn University Montgomery.