Getting Real About Energy

Publication Information:

Conca, James and J. Wright, Getting Real About Energy: A Balanced Portfolio for America’s Future, in the Progressive Fix, the Progressive Policy Institute, Washington, D.C., February 23, 2011.

Year: 2011

Topics: Energy & Utilities

The failure by Congress to pass energy and climate legislation has left U.S. energy policy adrift, with no clear direction or guiding concept of how we are going to address the long-term questions about the energy resources we elect to use and their impact on the environment. Rather than pursuing new approaches and policy proposals in the wake of the political defeat of cap-and-trade legislation, energy and environmental advocates have largely splintered into chaotic scrambles for subsidies or resigned their strategies to calling for increased research and development spending for energy, perhaps hoping technology can succeed in finding solutions where politics failed. Meanwhile, foreign nations continue to announce bold plans that set clear strategies for managing their future energy resources, leaving the U.S. farther behind every day in planning for leadership of tomorrow’s economy.

This paper aims to reorganize our discussions about energy and the environment around a very basic idea: the U.S. needs a new framework for identifying the goals of our energy policies and for laying out a vision of what our energy future should look like. Our current debates are too narrowly focused on incentives or regulation of specific fuels, pollutants, and technologies. We are losing sight of the forest in our fights over so many trees, and we need to take a step back and first address the broader question of where we ultimately want to be decades from now as a country and as an energy leader in the global economy. When we have an idea of the where we want to be decades from now, we can have a much more strategic and deliberate process for making policy decisions.

So what should this framework look like? By rejecting both the climate denialism and obstruction of the right and the wishful thinking and anti-nuclear biases of the far left, we outline a realistic plan to finally get the U.S. on track to a new, green economy and lead the world to a cleaner energy future. As an immediate and bold step toward setting real goals for clean and balanced growth, we propose a balanced energy portfolio that moves us toward a 30-year target energy mix for electricity generation of one-third fossil fuels, one-third renewable sources (wind, solar, biomass, hydro), and one-third nuclear generation. Such a target is an ambitious departure from our current mix of 69 percent fossil fuels, 11 percent renewable energy, and 20 percent nuclear energy. But it is doable – and setting the target is essential to serve as the polestar for all energy policy discussions.

Our balanced energy portfolio proposal is not meant to be exhaustive in its specific policy prescriptions. We offer this proposed portfolio as a framework for assessing what our needs are and for setting parameters and mileposts for policy proposals that are responsive to those needs. Such a framework is a starting point, and it will be up to policy makers to take the critical next steps by enacting meaningful policy changes that will get us there.