|Beijing smog in January 2013|
A couple of weeks ago, the New York Times published an article about the successful roll back of green energy mandates in Ohio. The writer made it sound as though the evil fossil fuel lobby convinced gullible legislators to “freeze the phase-in that utilities must buy from renewable energy sources”.
What disturbed me about the article is that it made no mention of the economic considerations. If the original plan, passed in 2008, was allowed to go forward, what would happen to the cost of energy in a state that has seen its manufacturing jobs heading for other places for many years?
As a society, we prefer a clean environment. No one wants his or her kids to breath dirty air or drink polluted water. We have all seen pictures of the smog in Beijing. And, Ohioans over the age of 50 can remember the sight of the Cleveland's Cuyahoga River on fire in 1969.
But, can we have our cake and eat it too? Can we eliminate fossil fuel energy without causing economic calamity?
That question will be subject to the usual partisan politics that have affected all of the important issues of our time. And, once the new EPA mandates are made effective next year, there are bound to be battles fought in court.
But, if we can get past all that, is it feasible?
The new mandates require each state to reduce its output of carbon by 30% from 2005 levels by 2030. Ten states have already met that requirement. Four of them (New York, New Hampshire, Maryland and Massachusetts) – members of the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative – have reduced carbon by nearly 40%.
|Cuyahoga River on fire in 1969|
So, how will we get there?
Everyone has a theory, it seems. Many are intriguing. Fresh Energy CEO Michael Noble posits that an ultra low carbon system can be set up through a hybrid of nuclear and renewables. The idea of nuclear energy sets off alarm bells in the minds of many Americans. However, it has been used safely to provide 75% of the power in France for over 30 years. And, new technologies, such as the use of thorium rather than more volatile light-water reactors, make nuclear safer than it has been in the past.
A Stanford University research team led by civil engineer Mark Jacobson has developed a roadmap for each of the 50 states to reach 100% sustainable energy by 2050 using existing technologies. Stanford’s roadmap suggests we replace fossil fuel plants as they age out so as not to drive up costs.
Whatever roadmap we, as a nation or state-by-state, decide to pursue, there will be bumps along the way. Projects will stall. There will be cost overruns. The promised benefits will be under delivered. And, whenever that happens, opponents on the political right will say, “I told you so”.
From the left, we hear that the green lobby has criticized the new EPA mandates as not being aggressive enough. Any suggestions of energy sources that will provide a “bridge” to a sustainable future are unacceptable to them. However, economic feasibility is an important criterion in order to maintain the support of the consuming and voting public. In the near term, converting power plants from coal to natural gas will reduce both cost and greenhouse gas emissions.
New methods of extracting natural gas (hydraulic fracturing or fracking) have made this alternative to coal inexpensive and available. The conversion from coal to natural gas can be done so quickly and cost-effectively that 15% of US power plants will have converted by the time the new government mandates kick in at the end of next year.
The abundance of natural gas within our borders promises to reduce oil imports and provide cheaper electricity while the alternatives are being developed and scaled. Bans on fracking and pipeline construction that will deliver natural gas safely and cheaply are counterproductive.
Further, fears about the dangers of fracking are unfounded. According to Scientific American the question isn’t whether it can be done safely. It’s “will it be done safely?”
What are essential are careful planning, flexible regulations and the support of a well-educated public. If we can get past the usual tug-of-war between the extreme left and right, we can achieve a sustainable energy future without damaging our economy.
The only question…
WHO WILL LEAD?