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Thursday, November 09, 2006

Election 2006: An Open Letter to Congress

Federal Energy Policies for a Sustainable Energy Future

With Senator George Allen (R) of Virginia conceding his closely contested race to Democrat Jim Webb, Democrats have now secured control of both branches of Congress in this Tuesday's mid-term elections.

This should be good news for clean energy advocates, as it will create a more favorable atmosphere on Capitol Hill for federal energy legislation aimed at reducing America's dependence on foreign oil and other fossil fuels, reducing our greenhouse gas emissions, and developing our own homegrown renewable resources. Democrats in both the House and the Senate have introduced several smart clean energy policies over the past several years of a Republican-controlled Congress, but none of them ever made it out of committee.

As with many other issues, Democrats must now show that they can indeed lead this country forward on energy policy to create a more secure, healthy and sustainable energy future for the United States (and leading is a lot harder than complaining).

To help them along (as if anyone is really listening to me!), the following open letter suggests several federal-level energy policies that I firmly believe should be implemented in order to help America on the path to a secure and sustainable energy future. Think of this as my 'wish list' for the coming Congressional session.

I know that not all (maybe not any) of these policies will pass, but I am optimistic that we will at least finally see public debate on the floor of the House and Senate focusing on how this country should address concerns about dependence on foreign oil, resource depletion concerns, and greenhouse gas emissions. And perhaps, we will see one or two of these sensible and forward-looking policies enacted as we take a few steps down the path to a sustainable energy future.

An Open Letter to Congress

Dear newly elected and re-elected Democrats in Congress and other Senators and Representatives interested in a secure and sustainable energy future,

On Tuesday, November 7th, the people of this great nation voiced their discontent with the current direction our nation is heading by voting in a new set of leaders and representatives and granting control of both houses of Congress to the Democrats. This is a clear vote of confidence in the platform of the Democratic Party and indicates that Americans are looking for new leadership and new strategies in the war in Iraq, a stronger economy (that actually benefits real working Americans), a higher minimum wage, expanded health care coverage and many other issues.

It should also be considered a clear indication that Americans want to see new leadership, new solutions, and new action to address a strong and growing concern for people across the United States: our energy future.

We want leaders who will craft smart policies to ensure a secure, affordable, healthy and sustainable energy future for all Americans. We want to see Congress pass energy legislation that will address our depenence on foreign oil, rising gas prices, resource depletion concerns, and global warming. We want our energy spending to support people and jobs right here in the United States, not line the pockets of Saudi princes, Russian oil barons, or even our oil-exporting neighbors in Canada and Mexico. We're tired of fighting wars and supporting dictators and getting into international entanglements to secure our oil interests overseas. And we want to know that we can feel proud leaving a clean, secure and healthy energy future for our children and grandchildren.

And we're tired of waiting, tired of rhetoric, and tired of empty words. We want action, and we want it soon. And it's up to you.

I would like to bring to your attention the following policy suggestions that would each help address the concerns many Americans have about our dependence on foreign oil, our depleting fossil resources and our growing greenhouse gas emissions. I would strongly encourage that some or all of these policies are implemented in the near future to help set America on a course for a secure, affordable and sustainable energy future:

  • Enact a nationwide Renewable Energy Standard (also known as a Renewable Portfolio Standard) that would require utilities across the United States to include a certain portion of renewables in their energy mix by a given target year. I would suggest a target of 15-25% of their resource mix by 2020 or 2025.

    21 states and the District of Columbia have already enacted Renewable Energy Standards at a state level, and these policies have been proven to be effective and efficient ways to gaurantee the development of our abundant homegrown renewable energy resources and ensure that we accrue the public health, economic development and energy security benefits of tapping our domestic renewable resources.

  • Enact strong nationwide appliance efficiency standards and building efficiency codes. These could be modeled after state-level standards in California and other states that have been very succesful in conserving the energy we use in our homes, offices and industries.

    High performance buildings, energy efficient appliances and lighting and other cost-effective efficiency measures should be harnessed across the country so that by 2025, we consume at least 10% less energy in our homes and businesses than we do now.

  • Raise or reform the Corporate Average Fuel Economy Standards for light-duty vehicle fuel economy so that the average fuel economy of the light vehicle fleet reaches 30 mpg by 2015-2020 and 40 mpg by 2025-2030.

    This would raise the fuel economy of the average car or light truck by about 50% in 2015-2020 and by almost 100% by 2025-2030 compared to the Energy Information Administration's business-as-usual forecasts, resulting in huge savings in imported oil use and large reductions in greenhouse gas emissions from the light vehicle fleet.

  • Close the flex-fuel vehicles loophole in CAFE which creates a large incentive for automakers to manufacturer gas-guzzling flex-fuel SUVs that hardly ever actually run on E85, and end the tax incentives for businesses to purchase large SUVs

    Both of these loopholes in current policies result in increased fuel consumption and greater dependence on foreign oil. According to a NY Times piece written by Thomas Friedman, the E85/CAFE loophole "increased U.S. oil consumption by 80,000 barrels per day in 2005 alone." [see this for more]

  • Enact minimum fuel economy standards for different weight classes to suplement CAFE and end the 'buy a hybrid, sponsor a hummer' syndrome in current CAFE rules.

    Currently, since CAFE is an average fuel economy standard only, progress in fuel economy on the leading edge of an auto manufacturers weight classes explicitly condones the sale of more gas guzzlers on the trailing edge of that weight class. For each fuel efficient Escape Hybrid Ford Motor Company sells, they can sell one more gas guzzling Ford Explorer or F250, eroding the progress made by the expanding adoption of hybrid vehicles. Enacting a sensible minimum fuel economy standard for different weight classes of vehicles would ensure that when energy conscious consumers buy hybrids or other fuel efficient vehicles, they aren't simply allowing carmakers to sell another Hummer or Escalade. The minimums should progressively increase as the average fuel economy standard increases over time.

  • Double or triple the federal energy research budget and focus research spending on basic research into carbon-free and/or renewable technologies and fuels, advanced batteries (for plug-in hybrids and electric vehicles), light-weight vehicle chassis, fuel efficient technologies, carbon sequestration, etc.

    Current spending, now at just $3 billion per year, is sorely lacking. The New York times recently reported that annual United States federal spending on all energy technologies, not just climate friendly ones, has fallen from an inflation-adjusted peak of $7.7 billion in 1979 to just $3 billion in the current budget. In contrast, federal spending on medical research has nearly quadrupled since 1979 and military spending has gone up 260% since then to $75 billion a year - over 20 times what is spent on energy research. If we are serious about energy independence, fighting global warming, and creating a new energy future, we've got to start spending some serious money to tackle these problems.

  • Enact a variable rate gas or oil tax that ensures that either gas prices or oil prices do not fall below a certain floor (say $2.50/gallon for gas or $45.00/barrel for oil, adjusted over time for inflation). This would provide investment certianty for alternatives to oil and ensure that America isn't lulled into inaction if gas or oil prices temporarily fall. While prices may dip and fall temporarily, high oil and gas prices will be the norm in coming decades, and it's time we plan for such a future.

    Part of the money raised could offset income taxes for low-income taxpayers who will be hit disproportionately hard by this tax, while the remainder could fund the increased energy research budget suggested above.

  • Fund public-private partnerships to accelerate commercialization of plug-in hybrids, with the goal of getting them on the market by 2010.

    Plug-in hybrids are an excellent near-to-medium-term solution to our oil dependence, reduce our transportation energy consumption and can harness a diverse range of electricity-producing resources to fuel transportation, including our abundant domestic renewable energy supplies. Plug-ins are nearly ready for mass commercialization and an extra push from a public-private parternship could greatly accelerate their deployment.

  • And finally, (and this is the big one!), enact a nationwide, economy-wide carbon cap and trade system with the goal of reducing national GHG emissions to 2000 levels or below by 2015, to 1990 levels by 2020, at least 15% below 1990 by 2025, and at least 60% below 1990 levels by 2050 (or some other similar targets).

    This is the linchpin policy in the fight against global warming and is long overdue. The other policies described above will be key in achieving the emissions reductions targets, while the cap and trade system will provide the proper market incentives to ensure that they are met. Cap and trade systems have already been implemented to effectively and efficiently reduce several kinds of pollutant emissions from power plants (i.e., SO2, NOx and Mercury) and would be an effective policy mechanism to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

    Additionally, several states are already implementing statewide or regional carbon cap and trade systems in the absence of federal action. This could eventually lead to a hodge-podge of state and regional policies that could create unfair competitive environments for our country's businesses. A national cap and trade system would create a level playing field, which is why more and more big business and industry leaders are asking for a federal carbon cap and trade system.

    Enacting this policy sooner, rather than later, even if caps don't go into effect until later years is also desirably as it would provide industry and business with regulatory certainty and allow smart investment and planning decisions. The current 'wait-and-see' stance in industry is creating large uncertainty and hampering investments in clean energy resources.

    Congress should also immediately pass a resolution or issue a public statement that any pulverized coal plants built after this point in time will not be 'grandfathered' into upcoming carbon regulations.

    Many utilities and power plant developers are planning to construct traditional, dirty, pulverized coal-fired power plants across the United States - over 150 such plants have been proposed in the West - under the assumption that if these plants are constructed before the enactment of carbon legislation, they will be 'grandfathered in' and will avoid regulation. This cannot be the case. The construction of dozens of new pulverized coal-fired power plants - the worst contributors to greenhouse gas emissions - will set the United States back decades in our efforts to control our growing emissions of greenhouse gases and avoid the worst effects of global warming.

    Issuing a clear and public statement to utilities and power plant developers that they should not expect their proposed plants to avoid regulation will provide a clear signal to utilities and developers that building these new plants carries high risks due to upcoming carbon regulations. This should dissuade and prevent the proposed coal building boom now planned across the United States. Utilities and power plant developers should be building power plants that can exist in a carbon-constrained world and should plan accordingly. If we still want to utilize our large domestic coal reserves, we should turn to coal gasification combined cycle power plants - the so-called 'clean coal' technologies - that can capture and sequester carbon emissions safely in geological formations.

  • Members of Congress, it's time for you to lead this great nation into a new energy future: a future where we break our addiction to foreign oil, where we become world leaders in advanced energy technologies, where we create tens of thousands of new jobs and strengthen our economy by developing our abundant homegrown renewable energy resources, where we need not fear the potentially devastating effects of global warming, and where we have created a clean, healthy, secure and sustainable energy future that we can feel proud to leave to our children and grandchildren.

    This is the future that Americans demand! It's up to you to lead us there. A sustainable energy future is possible, and with smart policies and committed leadership, we can make it happen.


    Jesse Jenkins
    Concerned citizen and resident of Portland, Oregon


    Anonymous said...

    Sounds good.

    Here are a few possible improvements on your plan.

    I like the R&D budget increase. A few top items I think need to be researched: solar cell basic science research. Solar cells hold the promise to a vast, cheap, clean energy source. The only other option seems to be nuclear. Scientists say sequestration needs to work with a < 0.1% leakage rate, or it will be ineffective.

    Battery research -- batteries & super capacitor research. EVs depend on one thing & one thing only. Great batteries. Make batteries more energy dense, cheaper, and/or longer lasting & you've got a replacement for oil. There is way too much emphasis on biofuels in my opinion. The USA is not Brazil & few politicians seem to realize this.

    V2G research -- computer modeling of V2G & how it could work. We might need legislation forcing power companies into this.

    And some policy stuff ideas:

    A nationwide net metering law to allow grid-tied solar to move forward.

    Permanent, long lasting incentives for renewable energy. No more of this wondering if they will be continued every two years.

    A nationwide solar incentive program. Probably not needed just yet, as there isn't enough supply to meet demand. But soon, soon.

    Permanent, long lasting incentives for hybrids & electric vehicles. Makes sense to tie the rebate to MPG.

    Incentives to US companies to establish manufacturing plants here. Energy is a 1 billion a year business. If we plan to replace everything with solar panels & batteries... then these industries will be massive like current oil companies. They will provide many jobs & can bring economic well being to people all over the union for years to come. Japan makes most of the LiIon batteries now. We better get cracking if we don't want to be left in the dust with this stuff.

    Port standards and an agreement with Europe & Japan to force all freighters to use electric cranes rather than diesel ones. This will actually save these shipping companies money and will go a long way to cleaning the air around ports -- ports are filthy beasts.

    Longer term...

    we need to figure out clean long distance trucking & shipping. Electric trains? Methanol trucks /trains?

    Cities need some funds to install recharging stations everywhere.
    Basically every parking spot will require one & this will be expensive. However... there could be a profit potential, so some company may want to have the right to install them. EVs are nearly ready now... but there isn't anywhere to plug them in.

    enough for now.

    Heiko said...

    "Rep. John Dingell, who has been a U.S. lawmaker since 1955, also gave a strong indication of what he did not plan to do: raise fuel-efficiency standards for U.S. automobiles."

    Not sure what to make of this, maybe some of your laundry list will have to wait for a new President, McCain seems to be a particularly promising candidate (ie he's both likely to win and is quite a hawk on greenhouse gases).

    Costa Samaras said...

    Great letter. Let me add one more specific sub-item under the 'double or triple the energy research budget'. We need to focus on energy storage devices that will allow intermittent renewables to play an increasing role, and we need to upgrade our power grid to be integrated with intelligence that will ease transmission congestion and system losses.