The Next President’s Realistic Energy Policy

The Energy Plan That Will Actually Happen

Representatives from both presidential campaigns met on campus last Monday and were asked how their candidates would define success in the energy sector at the end of two terms as president. In spite of the night’s rhetoric about oil-free, renewable energy ambitions, their responses were surprisingly subdued.

Jim Woolsey said that McCain would consider a wide expansion of alternative fuels and vehicles like plug-in hybrids and flexible-fuel vehicles to be an accomplishment. Obama’s envoy, Jason Grumet, described a country that used just a little less energy than the year before.

After the events of the last month’s financial meltdown, let me offer a more dire vision of what will actually happen in the next four to eight years based on previous recessions and energy crises.

The economy, in the nation as well as the world, will take such a thrashing that any grand visions on energy, healthcare, or Social Security will be put on hold while the commander-in-chief fights multiple fiscal brush fires. Companies will be unable to obtain credit or investment for the billion-dollar projects that nuclear or coal plants command.

A shriveling world economy will shrink consumer demand, sinking the price of oil and natural gas like it did during the 1980s and 90s and obviate any substantial shift away from non-renewable sources. Energy’s best laid plans — whether from Obama, McCain, Pickens, or Google — will be all for naught.

The next president will serve only one term. The last time the economic klaxons blared in 1987, the shockwaves reverberated for so long that the next President, George Bush the elder, was booted out of office because he presided over a recession. Voters read his lips about new taxes but the circumstances of the early 1990s still dictated an about-face.

And while the savings and loan crisis was confined to banks, it still extended throughout the economy. Our current state of affairs will not be as lucky since the credit crisis will touch on all sectors and circles.

Jimmy Carter showed up on national TV in a cardigan and inspired a career-damaging round of mockery rather than inspiring people to turn down their thermostats. This was during 1977 — during a period of high energy prices and some of the worst economic conditions in modern America. The public was less concerned with the temperature of their houses than with the availability of a paycheck.

Awaiting the next chief executive are similar conditions in the form of a wide-ranging recession and high energy prices.

What policy levers will be left for the next president to pull? Both candidates back a nationwide cap-and-trade market for carbon dioxide. Such a law will be signed, but the resulting program will be riddled with so many handouts to the utilities and oil companies that it will be toothless.

Both candidates support a move toward higher mileage vehicles like plug-in hybrids. These cars will be on the road, like the Prius was at the beginning of the century, but they will make a similarly small dent in overall impact for a decade. Both candidates want to wean ourselves off foreign imports of oil. The country may produce more alternative fuels from sources like biomass but not in sufficient quantities.

In the electricity sector, both candidates support “clean coal” technology like carbon capture and sequestration, but research will simply saunter along and remain decades away from commercial deployment.

Both candidates support more electricity transmission capacity and “smart grid” technologies, and both candidates support renewable sources of energy like solar and wind. The build-out trends will merely continue for these technologies, but only if we’re lucky enough that they don’t fail due to persistently high costs.

In sum, the ambitious proposals of both candidates will remain unfulfilled.

They will both be wrong, that is, unless the next president of the United States puts together a public works project on the scale of the New Deal and manages to combine it with the international dedication of the Marshall Plan. Our bridges and highways are falling apart and transmission lines need to be built to deliver all that proposed renewable energy.

Climate change will only be solved by world consensus. If the next president can assemble a package that connects the economy with a transformative energy policy, such a proposal would truly be a plan with a realistic shot at changing the national landscape.

But good luck getting it through Congress.

Gary Shu is a graduate student in the Engineering Systems Division and the Department of Urban Studies and Planning.