Other world powers out ahead on energy

In part, this is because the president made clear in his State of the Union speech that he will give energy significant attention over the next two years of his administration. In part, it is because our energy security is dependent on overseas supplies and global stability. The events that we have seen unfold in Tunisia and Egypt are stark reminders that the world is an unpredictable place. Whenever geopolitical events potentially affect our access to affordable energy supplies, they spur consideration of energy policies that might reduce those geopolitical risks.

But perhaps the most important reason energy has emerged as a priority is the competitive pressure America is experiencing from other major world economic powers as they take leading roles in clean-energy markets. New investment in clean energy globally reached nearly a quarter of a trillion dollars in 2010 — a 30 percent jump from the 2009 level and a 100 percent increase from the 2006 level — and most of this new investment takes place outside the United States.

Not only are other countries investing in clean energy, they are also consuming energy more efficiently than we do. According to the International Energy Agency, the United Kingdom, Japan and Canada have outpaced the United States in implementing efficiency policies to guarantee they get the most out of every BTU they consume.

So, how do we respond to this competitive world for the clean energy and the jobs it will create? I believe we need to do at least four things to remain at, or near, the forefront of this strong, developing market:

First, we need to continue to lead in energy research and development, because innovation is our nation’s greatest competitive strength.

Second, we must ensure the presence of a strong domestic market for clean-energy technologies. Without clean energy market-pull in the United States, there will be no incentive to manufacture and deploy these technologies here.

Third, we must have the financial infrastructure and the incentives to provide the capital needed to build advanced energy technology projects.

Finally, we need explicit policies to promote the development of U.S. manufacturing capabilities for these clean energy technologies.

These four strategic elements should be central to any comprehensive energy bill we undertake in this Congress. None of these individual ideas are new, but their interconnection is now more apparent and necessary.

Congress has a particularly important opportunity to advance some specific policies that the Committee on Energy and Natural Resources agreed to on a bipartisan basis last Congress. These consensus agreements provide a good starting place for our deliberations this year.

Clearly, the cheapest energy is the energy we do not have to use. I believe that energy efficiency should be an important piece of our early legislative agenda. Considerable consensus exists among manufacturers and consumer groups on improved energy efficiency standards for a variety of appliances and equipment, and it will make sense to advance those proposals.

Another priority is one President Obama has highlighted — that is, moving to a cleaner energy mix in the way we generate electricity. The White House requested that the committee help develop a Clean Energy Standard. I hope we can do so.

With respect to financing assistance for energy projects, I see at least three top priorities for early attention: reforming the current loan guarantee program for clean energy projects, providing financing support for advanced energy manufacturing, and providing reasonable stability and predictability in the tax provisions that apply to clean-energy projects and technologies.

Another crucial challenge and priority for the committee in this Congress will be to address the proper and effective regulation of energy. One of the important lessons learned from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill is that no one — least of all the regulated industry — benefits from flawed and underfunded regulation.

Last June, the Committee on Energy and Natural Resources unanimously voted out a bipartisan bill to address the key problems uncovered by our hearings on the Deepwater Horizon disaster. Unfortunately, Congress did not enact our bipartisan bill. In the near future, I hope we can agree on a follow-on bill to last year’s legislation on a bipartisan basis.

Finally, an issue that I hope the Energy Committee can address early in this Congress deals with perhaps the most pressing energy security problem we have: the vulnerability of our electrical grid to cyber-attack. A major disruption of the electric transmission grid, or the equipment it contains, as part of a cyber-attack could have disastrous consequences. We need to ensure that adequate preventative measures are in place across the grid. The committee reported legislation twice in the last Congress dealing with this critical issue, and I hope we can do so again.

Sen. Bingaman is chairman 
of the Senate Energy and 
Natural Resources Committee.