Energy in Three Dimensions: The Rationale for Energy Policy Must Be about More Than Climate Change and Green Energy

By Richter, Burton | Issues in Science and Technology, Spring 2011 | Go to article overview

Energy in Three Dimensions: The Rationale for Energy Policy Must Be about More Than Climate Change and Green Energy


Richter, Burton, Issues in Science and Technology


The United States has been unable to develop any coherent energy program that can last past changes in the control of our federal executive or Congress. The latest failure was the Waxman-Markey cap-and-trade bill that would have driven an enormous change in the country's energy supply system in the name of controlling global warming. It barely passed the House and went nowhere in the Senate, where what had started as a nonpartisan and more moderate effort by Senators Graham, Kerry, and Lieberman died in the polarized atmosphere that developed in the campaign season leading up to the 2010 congressional elections.

I wonder if a big part of our current problem is an overemphasis on "greenness," leading to a too-narrow focus on climate change as the sole driver for action. The public debate on energy is dominated by climate change and its deniers and its exaggerators. The deniers say global warming is a fraud or that it has nothing to do with human activities so we can't do anything about it anyway. The exaggerators say that unless we move within a decade to obtain 30% of our electricity from a narrowly defined group of renewable energy sources the world will descend into chaos by the end of the century. Between these two extremes are many members of Congress who see a need for government action on energy but do not believe that the country needs to move immediately to run the country on wind generators and solar cells. This group includes many Democrats who did not support the Waxman-Markey bill in the House.

Making major changes in the country's energy systems has a major impact economically as well as technically. There are potential benefits from making changes to energy sources that go beyond the climate issue, as important as that issue is. For example, the cost of the oil we import is about equal to our balance-of-trade deficit. If all cars, SUVs, pickups, and minivans traveled 50 miles per gallon of gas, our oil imports could be cut in half, reducing our balance-of-trade deficit by about $200 billion and decreasing emissions as well. The Energy Future: Think Efficiency study that I led for the American Physical Society concluded that 50-mile-per-gallon single-fuel vehicles can easily be produced in the 2020s.

National security must also be an essential consideration in energy policy. Delivering a single gallon of fuel to the front in Afghanistan requires a supply chain that consumes hundreds of gallons of fuel. Improvements in the efficiency of military vehicles would result in enormous savings in addition to reducing the exposure to danger of military personnel throughout the supply chain. Small solar or wind systems to provide power to forward bases would be treasured. Reducing U.S. dependence on oil would also make an important difference in foreign policy, making it possible to be more assertive in relations with oil-supplying nations in the Middle East and perhaps even with President Chavez of Venezuela.

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

Too much of the energy debate in recent years has suffered from a one-dimensional focus on climate change. But the systems that need to be changed to do something about global warming affect all dimensions of society: the economy, national security, and a variety of environmental concerns. Energy policy is too important to be entirely subsumed under a debate about climate science. Federal action on energy will occur only after we confront a number of realities that are creating unnecessary barriers to progress:

* The exclusive focus on climate change as a justification for action on energy has excluded potential allies.

* The emphasis on ultra-green technologies that are not yet ready for the big time has let the desire for the perfect drive out the available good.

* Pushing policies that are as narrowly targeted as renewable portfolio standards has prevented many larger and less costly emissions reductions to be made in the nearer term than have been made with the renewables. …

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