Op-eds and Articles

On Energy, Long-Term Targets Needed

By / 3.8.2011

This piece was originally posted at National Journal’s Energy and Environment Expert Blog

Asking what our energy mix will be three decades from now is exactly the right question to reframe the debate about our national energy policies—or lack thereof. Most of our discussions would be a lot more productive if advocates for different approaches laid out a clear vision of what our future mix of fuel sources would look like in 30 years, so voters and policy wonks alike will be able to better understand and compare competing proposals. We should start with simple but achievable targets, such as the “Balanced Energy Portfolio” that sets a 2040 goal of using one-third renewables, one-third nuclear, and one-third fossil fuels to generate the country’s electricity and avoiding increases in greenhouse gas emissions.

Too often our recent battles over energy legislation have focused on specific mechanisms for shaping our energy future, without making a clear case for what that future should actually look like. Trying to sell cap-and-trade, carbon taxes, or renewable energy standards isn’t going to work unless we can judge these abstract ideas against easily understood energy targets. That’s why President Obama was right to reduce his new energy agenda to a simple goal: producing 80 percent of our electricity from clean energy sources by 2035.

The elegance of the President’s clean energy messaging is made possible by his nearly total avoidance of mechanistic details about how he wants the country to reach this goal. Secretary Chu has offered an overview of a very broad Clean Energy Standard (also a fact sheet) that would include a system of mandates satisfied with tradable credits for renewables, nuclear, natural gas, and clean coal technologies. But the administration has not laid out a full proposal for how those credits would be allocated or traded, because there is no sense in making a case for implementation until President Obama can convince a critical mass of the public that his goal is worth pursuing.

The President’s Clean Energy Standard is important in another respect, because it is a form of energy resource planning, a realm of energy policy that has historically been handled by the states. It’s an anachronistic and unfortunate result of our federal system that the most important decisions about the types of energy resources we will build are made on a purely piecemeal basis by state regulators and local utilities, with no coherent plan or coordination at the federal level. Part of the political appeal of carbon-pricing models is that they offer an indirect method to influence resource planning decisions without totally upending the current patchwork of state and regional decision making. But there is no reason that the federal government should not take a more active role by adopting national goals and working with states and utilities to implement strategies for meeting them.

If we are going to have a national debate about resource planning, we will need to be more specific and forthright in setting goals than the administrations broad 80 percent standard. In a recent paper released by the Progressive Policy Institute, Jim Conca and Judith Wright offer a realistic Balanced Energy Portfolio with a 30-year target energy mix of one-third renewables, one-third nuclear, and one-third fossil-fuel generation. Their target would be an ambitious departure from our current mix of 69 percent fossil fuels, 20 percent nuclear, and 11 percent renewable energy. But it is a realistic, pragmatic first step to restart a national conversation about determining our own energy future, and it provides clear goals to evaluate policy proposals.

The best hope for finding common ground in this debate is to build consensus around long-term targets for how we as a nation produce and consume energy. Once we get some agreement on the big-picture goals, we can then work on reverse-engineering specific policy proposals to achieve those goals and argue over which approach is best.