Investing in our energy future is a requirement, not an option

Investing in our energy future is a requirement, not an option
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Recent headlines about electricity price spikes in Texas may appear to be current developments but are simply old news to many who have thoughtfully followed the state’s electricity market. For those who believe true energy sustainability demands reliable access, environmental responsibility and affordable, competitive rates, this future was forecast well in advance.

The myths we read daily are: Renewables are lower cost. They are not. Reserve margins in Texas are adequate for high peak demand. Also not true. Coal is dirty and undeserving of any future. And yet coal has been integral to baseload power strategies and we have the newest, cleanest, most efficient coal plants in the U.S., and lead the world in efficiency of such facilities. So what’s going on? It’s easy to forecast because we have already seen the outcome — in Germany.

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Over the past 20 years, Germany has pursued what is often described as the “progressive energy strategy.” Energiewende, they call it. With strong conviction they have attempted to shut down coal, eliminate nuclear, build wind and solar nearly exclusively, as well as project massive CO2 reductions to the world. Sounds ambitious and forward thinking, right?

 

In reality, energy costs to German citizens and industry today are 40 percent higher due to Energiewende. Wind capacity (built on the backs of taxes and taxpayer investment) is hugely overbuilt and yet remains unable to maintain peak demands for energy much of the year. 

Nuclear plants are closed, and resulting demands have forced previously shuttered older coal plants to re-open. And the ambitious CO2 pledges? They have fallen short by 40 percent and become a political nightmare to defend for Chancellor Angela Merkel. 

What’s the lesson? Politician and special interest group pledges with no technical or commercial pathways are what we have become cynically numb to these days. Shutting down energy sources and growing by subtraction is a fool’s errand. We need a conversation about progressive investments in energy technology for all energy sources and fuels. The grand global energy challenge demands it, and we cannot wait. 

So this summer, when we are asked to turn down our air conditioning — or turn it off if it gets hot enough — let’s remember that investing in our future with technology is a requirement and not an option. Our challenge is to develop and deploy technologies that allow us to responsibly utilize all the energy and fuels we have. We should not take the easy path of pledges to eliminate energy sources that leave the resulting, unsatisfying outcome to unsuspecting citizens and ratepayers. We can do a lot better. 

Charles McConnell is the executive director of the Energy and Environment Initiative at Rice University in Houston.