Friday, July 21, 2006

Sample Energy Policy

For years, critics of our national approach to energy have argued for a comprehensive US energy policy, addressing the supply and demand aspects of energy security and setting out a plan for a transition to alternatives to imported fossil fuels. Last year's Energy Policy Act was a good start, though it suffered from the lack of a central organizing principle. With the publication last week of the UK's Energy Review, we have an example of a national energy policy organized around the goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions, and the result is interesting for both its ambition and its pragmatism.

Having spent a couple of delightful years living in London, I pay extra attention to events in Britain. This explains my interest in a UK energy policy, but that's not why I'm drawing attention to it here. The UK is of course smaller than the US, with a population and economy one-fifth and one-sixth the size of ours, respectively. But while it starts from a rather different position of domestic energy resources and infrastructure, the challenges it faces are quite similar to ours: declining domestic energy production, growing imports, and the expanding demands of an increasingly high-tech society. It also brings a market orientation more similar to ours than that of any other EU member. The notable difference, however, is the added constraint of being bound by UK and EU commitments to make dramatic reductions in the greenhouse gas emissions implicated in climate change. So here is at least a hint at what a US energy policy might look like with a strong climate change overlay.

The focus on climate starts with the first paragraph of the press statement by the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, who led the panel that created the report. It is reinforced throughout the document by aggressive targets and measures to strengthen emissions trading and the other mechanisms by which Britain intends to reduce its emissions. But the report also highlights the continuing importance of fossil fuels, promoting expanded oil and gas drilling in the North Sea and the development of the means to keep coal production and coal-fired power generation competitive in a low-carbon world.

One interesting features of the plan is its reliance on a broad range of technologies, rather than promoting one or two preferred paths. For example, renewables are advanced in both transportation fuel and power generation, but without specifying precisely which type to expand. The emphasis is on mechanisms and modes, rather than solutions that might change over time--e.g. distributed power, rather than fuel cells or microturbines.

A number of comments on the week's earlier postings picked up on the omission of nuclear power from most discussions of responses to climate change. Not so in the UK. The report isn't shy about taking on the challenge of the aging UK power plant fleet, and it justifies its recommendation for building a new generation of nuclear power plants on the basis of low emissions, as well as energy stability and security benefits . Although The Economist is skeptical that private industry will meet this challenge without further incentives, the report makes a strong environmental case for nuclear power.

There's also a major emphasis on efficiency, starting with such low-hanging fruit as setting higher standards for appliances and eliminating "parasitic loads" in electrical devices. That will be an easier pill for the public to swallow than its suggestion to expand emissions trading to encompass road transport and aviation--which will translate into higher fuel prices and airfares.

I started the week with a look at some of the things that have changed since the energy crisis of the 1970s. My readers reminded me of a few items I omitted, but later I realized I had missed the biggest change of all, climate change. Although on the surface it imposes an additional constraint on resolving our energy problems, it also functions as a practical mechanism for prioritizing technologies and approaches--as we see in the UK plan--creating a bias towards fuels that generate low emissions in both their consumption and production. Of course, the UK's Energy Review reflects a different social context and political system than ours, and I wouldn't strain the analogy by suggesting that a US energy policy would ever replicate theirs. Nevertheless, it's fascinating to see an energy policy formulated equally as an environmental policy, and in which all of the principal conventional and alternative energy technologies have an important role.

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