This week during the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute’s Public Policy Conference in Washington, we have the opportunity to talk about how public policy will affect America’s fastest growing community.  One of the most important policy areas, and one that impacts every minute of our daily lives, is energy.  For most Americans, electricity is a keystone to our quality of life.  At the same time, Americans take electricity for granted as “always being there” unless a house, business or community experiences a temporary emergency power outage.  For a few Americans, like myself, we know the importance of electricity because we have had to live without it for decades.

When I was a child, my family’s rural home near Manassa, Colorado, was three miles away from the nearest power line. The only supply of electricity we had access to was my father’s very small electric generator that was used only when my mother did the laundry. Most of the time, we did our homework under the dim light of kerosene lamps, had no television or radio, no refrigerators or telephones.   In 1981, when I was 26, we were finally connected to the electric grid and began enjoying the benefits of reliable power.

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There probably aren’t too many 26-year-olds in America today who experienced growing up without electricity.  It says so much about our nation that what was once a luxury item is now so commonplace that it is taken for granted by nearly everyone. 

That experience and first-hand knowledge of the value of electricity was a lesson I’ve kept with me throughout my career in public service.

As a society, we are depending more and more on electricity: a typical U.S. household owns an average of 25 consumer electric products and 99 percent of these are plugged in.  Americans love electronic devices, whether they enjoy playing games or feel the need to be in constant communication - but when was the last time you gave much thought to the fuel that powers your device and allows you to do all of those things?  The answer is probably not lately, if ever.

Yet we cannot take electricity for granted and just assume that it will always be there when you flip the switch. As a nation we have many important choices about how we power our future.  In the midst of our nation’s energy boom, it is important to be strategic about our energy policies and ensure we make the right decisions now that will provide future generations with sustainable and affordable electricity for all Americans.

One of electricity’s greatest attributes is that it can be generated by using a variety of resources, all of which are abundant and available domestically. Having these resources nearby provides the United States greater control of our energy future and is why an “all the above” strategy that includes wind, solar, nuclear, natural gas, hydro and clean coal technology provides us  with flexibility to meet our nation’s energy needs.

An “all of the above” energy strategy isn’t just important for reliability though – it is also essential to our economy, jobs and energy affordability. A recent study by IHS Energy found that a reduction in power supply diversity would result in higher electricity prices and reduce the typical household’s annual disposable income by approximately $2,100. The study also determined that, since mid-2009, the 15 states with the lowest electricity prices saw manufacturing jobs increase by 3.3 percent. In contrast, manufacturing jobs decreased by 3.2 percent in the 15 states with the highest electricity prices. This is a good reminder of the interconnectedness and influence energy and energy prices have on the broader economy but also families in these communities.    

This is a real issue for lower-income households which often spend thirty-seven percent of their income on essential energy needs. That is a staggering figure that illustrates the impact that energy costs have on those scraping to make ends meet. It also tells us that the success of our energy and environmental future is as rooted in economics and affordability as it is in any other factor. No matter anyone’s race or politics, if electricity, or broader energy resources, return to being a luxury item as they were in the early part of the last century, we’ll have squandered a great opportunity to improve our environment and our economics. 

Renewable resources in particular have seen significant growth in recent years and will only continue to expand as they become more affordable. There is no doubt that renewable energy will and must play a key role in our energy future, and we should continue to encourage the development of renewables and clean energy technologies that can be deployed in the most affordable way for Americans. An increasingly cleaner energy future is happening right now.  I’ve always believed that this is important, and, during my time leading the Department of Interior, I authorized the development of more than 11,000 megawatts of solar on public lands and granted the first offshore wind permits.

A diverse portfolio of power production will actually help shepherd the development of renewables – allowing us to cost-effectively integrate more renewable power sources onto the electric grid while ensuring that we maintain a reliable supply of power at affordable prices. Due to the variability of renewables we must continue to utilize baseload sources like nuclear, natural gas and innovative clean coal technologies to provide a necessary level of power that is available around the clock.

Policymakers in Washington and in state capitals need to take a broad view and consider how their decisions impact their constituents – all of whom rely on electricity.

The bottom line is that we need a diverse power supply for America to continue to grow and prosper. We need policies in place that enable us to take advantage of all the vast energy resources available in an economically responsible and environmentally friendly way that will truly benefit all American families – and make sure that they continue to have reliable power at a good price.

Salazar was Secretary of the Interior from 2009 to 2013, and Democratic senator from Colorado from 2005 to 2009. He is currently a partner in the international law firm of WilmerHale.