Friday, November 20, 2009

Energy Principles

My critique of a proposal for expanded tax credits to promote the electrification of transportation prompted some interesting comments. It also got me thinking again about an underlying problem that leads to the kind of scramble for government favor and largess that is exemplified by such efforts and by the badly-flawed Waxman-Markey climate bill. We have seen endless debates on energy policy, energy strategy and energy tactics, but far too little on energy principles. It would save much time, effort and money if we had a guiding principle that eschewed favoritism toward any particular technology, in favor of technology-neutral regulations and federal investments in broadly-useful energy infrastructure. Even more importantly, we would benefit from a clear principle of focusing policy and incentives on our desired ultimate outcomes, such as reducing emissions or oil imports, rather than on individual pathways for achieving them.

Take the example of electric vehicles (EVs) and their infrastructure. The US government has no business promoting a single-focus solution like this. It does, however, have a vital interest in promoting much more energy-efficient cars, based on any technologies that achieve that result. If handing out consumer tax incentives for new cars is necessary to further that goal, they should be given on the basis of total energy consumption, using a comprehensive metric like the MPGe of the Automotive X-Prize, which counts all energy in all forms delivered to the car. The higher the MPGe, the bigger the incentive. That would make a lot more sense than doling out tax credits in proportion to the size of a car's battery. Along with the proposal by the EPA and Department of Transportation to let carmakers count EVs twice towards their new corporate fuel economy and tailpipe emissions targets, that would create a perverse incentive similar to the old "SUV Loophole", possibly setting the stage for a new generation of large, inefficient battery SUVs.

Shifting transportation energy from oil to electricity makes more sense if that electricity is used efficiently, particularly since low-emission sources still account for less than 1/3 of our electricity supply, and the wind power most often mentioned in connection with powering EVs accounts for just 1.6% of US generation this year. On that basis, investments in the smart grid and long-distance transmission lines would probably be as helpful in supporting future EV deployment as underwriting specific EV recharging infrastructure, while avoiding the risk of becoming orphaned if EVs don't catch on.

On the generation side, whether intentionally or not, the stimulus bill passed early this year helped put wind, solar, and other renewable energy sources on a more technology-neutral basis by making them all eligible for the same 30% federal tax credit previously available only to solar power. Yet this provision still contains at least one glaring omission, because it was established under a very specific definition of renewable energy, rather than encompassing all energy sources meeting criteria for very low emissions that would also include nuclear power. Putting nuclear and renewables on a common footing would go a long way toward ending protracted arguments about which technology receives more (undeserved) government support and which is most commercially competitive, and it would foster a future generating mix offering similar depth and flexibility to the one we have now, without undesirable greenhouse gases.

Ultimately, whether you like my choice of principles or prefer different ones, we need a common set of criteria for making the energy decisions we face, instead of treating each as an ad hoc opportunity for one option or technology and its backers to win at the expense of the others--and often at the expense of taxpayers. While we certainly need to get on with deploying lower-emission ways of producing and using energy, it is premature to bet the ranch on any one option. We should still be creating new options and pruning them along the way, based on principles aligned with the basic problems we are trying to solve. While that might sound idealistic to some, it strikes me as intensely practical and much more useful in the long run than the prevailing plague of energy "answer-itis", in which everyone wants to push a specific answer before we even agree on the right questions to ask.

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