The strategic energy choices we need to make
Energy infrastructure across the United States is showing its age as the power grid struggles to meet demand and power plants near retirement. Meanwhile, advances in new technologies hold the promise of plentiful energy requiring little or no fuel; but significant research funding is required.
Policymakers will have to address these challenges while also providing for a 30% increase in US electricity demand by 2035.
These challenges are significant – but none of them are a question of either/or. Instead, how the United States meets those challenges will require strategic decisions about: infrastructure investment, government policy, research funding, and even foreign policy.
The problem is that we do not have a political vocabulary for how to debate and discuss these choices. Policymakers too often make arguments about energy based on which will ‘sell’. But these challenges cannot be met by sound-bites. These are important decisions requiring an informed and wide-ranging debate – not trench warfare over small issues.
Instead, we should look at the options and weigh the tradeoffs for each. Because there are tradeoffs – decision makers should not pretend there are silver bullets that will automatically bring cheap, clean, domestic energy to all.
We need to consider these choices in light of three concerns: Energy Security; Economic Stability; and, Environmental Sustainability.
Analytically, ‘energy security’ is difficult to quantify. President Carter defined energy security in a 1977 speech as “independence of economic and political action”. In short, U.S. foreign policy should be determined by its interests, not by its energy needs.
Importantly, Energy Security does not mean ‘energy independence’ in the sense that all of the energy used in America comes from within its borders without international trade. This is neither obtainable nor desirable in a globalized world.
Obtaining energy security actually does not come from increased domestic production alone: it comes from flexibility, competition, and redundancy. If a source of energy is easily replaced, then a country isinsulated from supply shocks.
When decision makers are deliberating about energy choices, the relative price of each decision is also critical. However, short-term fuel prices cannot be the reason that long-term decisions are made. Economic Stability should be defined as how energy affects the health of the economy over the long-term. Producers and consumers should be able to make rational economic decisions independently of price fluctuations or negative externalities.
We also need to look at Environmental Stability.
While there remains a deep political divide in this country about whether man-made emissions are causing the climate to change. However, even if policymakers are skeptical of the scientific basis for climate change, a prudent, precautionary course in the face of uncertainty would demand that some action be taken.
Environmental sustainability is about more than climate change. Local environmental effects of energy production are as important. The extraction, through mining or drilling, of fuels and minerals necessary for energy production can have negative effects on the local environment. These externalities include spills, water contamination, and air pollution – all of which can be harmful to the health of people living and working around extraction sites.
This fall’s budget debate will be an opportunity for Congress to make some choices on energy; a budget is all about priorities. We can choose to invest in cleaner, more secure fuels, or we could choose the dirty, unstable, insecure status quo.
Andrew Holland the Senior Fellow for Energy and Climate at the American Security Project, which recently published his report in to energy strategic decisions: America’s Energy Choices.