A Plea for Presidential Leadership on Sustainable Energy

When President Obama ran for President, it seemed to me that he really understood the need to transition our economy from fossil fuels to renewable energy. After eight years of Dick Cheney's Texas oil industry energy policy, it was a relief to hear Obama's perspective. As the campaign evolved, and certainly once he took office, the President decided that political expedience required that he favor nuclear power and deep sea oil drilling. My guess is that he is now a little less enthusiastic about these technologies. In fact, every so often he resumes his rhetorical push for renewable energy.

The President inherited an economic disaster that by necessity, dominated the agenda of his first two years in office. With the economy beginning to pick up steam, the BP oil disaster and the Japanese nuclear catastrophe are increasing the demand for President's leadership on energy. But so far, we haven't seen much. A new energy policy is urgently needed, and it must be influenced by an updated assessment of the risks of energy development after our experiences in Japan and the Gulf of Mexico.

Instead of a massive national mobilization for renewable energy, we got a "Blueprint for a Secure Energy Future" from the White House. The blueprint starts with the typical rhetoric about expanding the domestic production of fossil fuels. The big news in that plan is that coal is omitted in order to "expand safe and responsible domestic oil and gas development and production." The other elements of the plan include building more fuel efficient vehicles and encouraging more energy efficient buildings. Toward the end of the blueprint, they get around to "innovating our way to a clean energy future." This part of the blueprint includes the goal of generating 80% of our electricity from clean energy sources by 2035. The Obama energy plan provides a number of déjà vu moments. They really are rounding up the usual suspects.

The problem is that the Administration assigns a lower priority to energy and environment than to the economy, health care, and our military engagements. While sustainable energy could be a huge boost for the economy, the American political right is unwilling to invest government money in R & D and will not allow tax policies that favor renewable energy. All of that could be overcome with Presidential leadership, but I do not get the sense that the President really cares about these issues. Until he does, I don't think anything will change.

I hope it won't take another local disaster to move this issue up on the political agenda. As the news from Japan's damaged Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plants turns from very bad to even worse, one can't help but be reminded of the slow motion disaster of the 2010 BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. All the elements are there: assurances that the technology was manageable, the sudden lethal accident, a clean-up effort characterized by trial and error and unproven technologies. Let's hope the next energy disaster isn't the contamination of a city's water supply as a result of hydrofracking for natural gas.

Our inability to manage technology and our extreme need for energy leads to technological failures. The irony is that the only way to solve these problems is through the application of other technologies. Dismantling the energy based economy is not politically feasible. There is little question that along with the wondrous benefits of modern technology we face substantial risks. There is also little question that people are willing to tolerate those risks in order to obtain the benefits of technology. We know that we cannot live in a world without risk, but the issue is what type of risk? What is the probability of risk and what its possible scope and intensity? All risk is not created equal.
Every time you put your key in your car ignition and start to drive, you know you are risking an accident. You take steps to deal with the risk. To reduce the probability of risk, you might avoid icy roads. To reduce the potential scope of an accident you might use your seat belt and turn down that shot of tequila someone offers you "for the road," However, even a horrific auto accident is unlikely to result in massive death and destruction. While some of the impacts of a crash may well be irreversible, most will fade from view fairly quickly.

By definition, the technologies with the greatest potential negative impacts are large scale and capital intensive like most of the power plants that generate electricity. These plants are vestiges of the 20th century era of heavy industry. They are built on the management notion of "economy of scale." Today, inexpensive communication and information technologies allow you to build supply chains and production processes utilizing many organizations located in many places. We have done this in a number of business operations but not energy. It is possible to conceive of a decentralized energy system, but we have not yet built one. Distributed electric generation utilizing small scale power generators managed by smart grid technologies can ensure that electric generation capacity is less prone to breakdown due to the failure of a single generation source.

The amount of investment in capital intensive energy generation has resulted in a powerful set of economic interests that have long prevented America from addressing its critical energy problems. These established interests define energy reality. New technologies that require R & D and other incentives to compete with low tech fossil fuels are defined as infeasible and inadequate. The terms of debate are controlled by these interests and reinforced by the ideology of the free market. This is an amazing argument given the tax breaks and other government funded incentives long enjoyed by the fossil fuel industry.

While there is a clear need for the U.S. government to implement an active and if you'll excuse the pun, energetic energy policy, the political calculus in Washington is moving in the opposite direction. The House Republicans are so clueless about the need for sustainable economic development, that they are working overtime to use the budget process to prevent EPA from regulating greenhouse gasses and other air and water pollutants. And the President seems reluctant to push energy and environment and provide meaningful, sustained leadership. This is not a new story. But I for one hoped for more. I still do.