Clean, Green, Safe and Smart
To put things in perspective, fossil fuels now provide about 84 percent and nuclear power about 8.5 percent of America's net energy supply; renewables, including hydropower, provide a mere 8 percent. Although the amount of energy provided by renewables is expected to grow in the years ahead, the United States is projected to need so much more energy under its current path—114.5 quadrillion British thermal units per year in 2035, compared with approximately 100 quadrillion today—that it will need much larger amounts of oil, gas and coal to supply the necessary increase. As a result, says the Energy Department, we will rely more on fossil fuels in 2035 than we do today, and will be emitting greater quantities of carbon dioxide.
Clearly, the existing path leads us ever closer to environmental catastrophe. Only by freezing (and eventually reducing) the total amount of energy consumed and reversing the ratio between traditional and alternative fuels can disaster be averted. A progressive energy policy would aim to achieve a ratio of 50:50 between traditional and renewable fuels by 2030, and by 2050 would confine fossil fuels and nuclear power to a small "niche" market.
Accepting the necessity of switching to noncarbon alternatives, what are the "clean, green and safe" fuels that America should rely on? Any source of energy chosen to meet the nation's future requirements should meet several criteria: it must be renewable, affordable, available domestically and produce zero or very low amounts of greenhouse gas emissions. Several fuels satisfy two or three of these qualities, but only one—wind power—meets all of them. When located at reliably windy spots and near major transmission lines, wind turbines are competitive with most existing sources of energy and have none of their disadvantages. Solar power comes close to wind in its appeal, possessing great utility for certain applications (such as rooftop water heating); still, electricity derived from existing photovoltaic cells remains uncompetitive with other fuels in most situations. Geothermal, tidal and wave energy show great promise but will need considerable development to be commercially applicable on a large scale. Biofuels derived from cellulose or algae also look promising, but they, too, require more work. Further out on the development path are hydrogen and nuclear fusion; it will take at least another generation or two before they will achieve widespread commercial utility.
Some within the environmental community argue for short-term reliance on some combination of natural gas, nuclear fission and coal, using the carbon capture and storage process as a "bridge" to renewable fuels, recognizing America's slow start in adopting the latter. While a case can be made for each of these, not one is clean, green and safe. Natural gas, while emitting less carbon dioxide than other fossil fuels, is increasingly being derived from shale rock through the environmentally risky process known as "hydraulic fracturing" [see Kara Cusolito, "The Next Drilling Disaster?" June 3]. Nuclear fission produces radioactive waste that cannot be stored safely. Likewise, there is no assurance that carbon separated from coal can be stored safely for long periods of time. It follows that a wise policy would seek to leapfrog these technologies and move as rapidly as possible to renewable sources of energy.
With this in mind, the basic goal of a new national energy policy should be to minimize the use of existing fuels while ramping up the development and use of truly green alternatives—which requires not just technological innovation but a concerted effort to bring the new technologies to scale in the market, as Christian Parenti argues in the following article. The transition will also require a change in the way energy is distributed. At present a large share of our energy, in the form of oil, natural gas and coal, is delivered by pipeline, rail and truck. Most renewables, however, will be delivered in the form of electricity. This will require a massive expansion of the nation's electrical system—and its transformation into a "smart grid" that can rapidly move energy from areas of strong wind or sun (depending on weather conditions) to areas of peak need. A smart grid would also allow people to install their own energy-generating systems—solar panels, wind turbines, hydrogen fuel cells—and sell surplus energy back to the system.
Specifically, this policy would seek to:
§ dramatically increase the use of wind power by adding more turbines and by increasing links to an expanded national electrical grid;
§ increase the efficiency and cost-effectiveness of solar energy, especially photovoltaics and solar-thermal power;
§ accelerate the development of geothermal, tidal and wave power as well as biofuels derived from cellulose and algae, and expand research on hydrogen fuel cells and nuclear fusion;
§ create a national "smart grid" capable of absorbing a vast increase in wind, solar, geothermal and wave power and delivering it to areas of greatest need;
§ spur the development, production and acquisition of super-energy-efficient vehicles, buildings, appliances and industrial processes;
§ accelerate the transition from conventional vehicles to hybrids, from regular hybrids to plug-in hybrids and from hybrids to all-electric automobiles;
§ encourage and facilitate greater personal reliance on intercity rail, public transit, bicycles and walking.
To achieve these goals, the government will have to assemble policy tools and funding devices. All incentives and subsidies for fossil fuel extraction and nuclear fission should be phased out, and like amounts directed toward the development of promising renewables and the further modernization and expansion of the electrical grid. Liberal tax breaks should be awarded to households and small businesses that invest in energy-saving heating, cooling and lighting systems; similar breaks should be offered for the purchase of hybrid and electric vehicles. Many key initiatives, such as the construction of regional high-speed rail lines, will be costly. To finance such endeavors, taxes on gasoline and other carbon-based fuels should be increased as payroll taxes are decreased, thus encouraging job growth while discouraging carbon pollution; rebates should also be given to cushion the effect on low-income people. In addition, a ten-year, $250 billion energy innovation fund should be established to provide low-interest loans for commercializing promising new technologies being developed at universities and start-up firms around the country; once repaid, these funds could then be used to fund other such endeavors.
The Cheney plan envisioned, among other goals, building 1,000 new nuclear power plants by 2030. By contrast, the new energy policy envisioned here would have the following goals:
§ create 5 million jobs through the pursuit of a green energy revolution, with a focus on the construction and manufacturing sectors, as outlined by the nonprofit group the Apollo Alliance;
§ maximize the nation's energy efficiency—in transportation, heating, electricity and all other sectors—such that total energy demand declines by at least 50 percent by 2050, as documented in a comprehensive study by Greenpeace International and the European Renewable Energy Council;
§ phase out oil consumption, except in niche markets, by 2030;
§ formalize the current de facto moratorium on constructing new coal-fired power plants, phase out existing plants as well and halt all coal use by 2020;
§ supply at least 75 percent of US electricity from wind, solar and other renewable sources by 2030 and 99 percent by 2050, as described in the Greenpeace-EREC study;
§ shift the US vehicle fleet to all-electric cars by 2035, to be powered with renewable energy;
§ reduce US greenhouse gas emissions (from 1990 levels) by at least 90 percent by 2050, as described in the Greenpeace-EREC study.
There is not enough space here to argue the case for each of these specifics, but the essential elements of the new energy policy our nation needs are these: a guiding philosophy, a vision of the intended outcome, an assessment of the possible energy sources and an outline of tools for implementation. Each of the final three can be modified as necessary to account for global events and scientific advances; but adherence to the first is critical. Adopting an enlightened new philosophy to guide our nation's future energy plans is the single most valuable thing we can do in the wake of the Deepwater Horizon tragedy.