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Change is Afoot

Energy Agendas for a New Era by Michael Welch

Liberals are giddy with the promised "change" that was the hallmark of the Obama presidential campaign, while seasoned energy-watchers and other progressive-minded folks are crossing their fingers and taking a wait-and-see attitude. The president-elect has been in the news almost daily with talk of the promised change—including stimulus for the economy that excludes the unnecessary "pork" that always seems to find its way into the appropriations that Congress places on the treasury (our hard-earned tax dollars).

Obama says that future appropriations bills won't be like those passed and signed this year and in the recent past, inferring that our tax dollars will mostly be made available for getting the United States out of its current economic woes. It is unclear exactly what that means, or where he draws the line on unacceptable pork—but he has made it clear that he wants to stimulate the economy through new jobs in renewable energy and other chosen industries, while at the same time fighting climate change with RE, energy efficiency, and, he says, "clean coal" technology and more nukes.

You can count on the dirtier industries fighting tooth and nail to keep their subsidies and share of the pie. With this more receptive administration, evening out the energy playing field should become much easier: RE advocates will have better access and will likely increase their efforts in their particular areas of interest.

Climate Change

Global warming is an issue that many interest groups will continue using to bolster efforts for their own particular technologies—some deservedly and some not. The issue does not have its own special interest group fighting for solutions. Instead, hundreds of organizations—from environmental groups to biofuel farmers' organizations, from green business groups to the "clean coal" and nuke industries—are using it as an issue to further their own goals. Here is a look at the new federal agendas of some of these industries.

Solar. The solar industry intends to stay its course—it has already been pushing hard on RE issues and has done well considering seemingly overwhelming odds. It will definitely benefit from the changes in Washington, with more environmentally friendly legislators sitting in the House and Senate. As the industry grows, it will be able to exert even further influence. As an indication of the access that is expected, the Solar Energy Industries Association said, "SEIA is very well positioned to work with the transition team for president-elect Obama. We have strong relationships with many of the senior members of the team, in particular the energy and environment team." SEIA's efforts are representative of many other groups' solar efforts and will include:

• Federal renewable energy portfolio standards, to set minimum percentages of RE in the makeup of utilities' generation.

• New and improved long-distance transmission, to reliably move RE electricity around the grid.

• Federal interconnection and net-metering standards for RE, to make sure that everyone from any state can connect their own home RE system to the grid.

• Opening up federal lands for solar project development.

Wind. The wind-electric industry is slowly catching up to the solar industry in influence—and catching up is their goal. Initially, they want to obtain the same level of support that the solar industry received last year with the financial "bailout" bill. Their agenda is outlined in the document Wind Energy for a New Era and includes:

• A national renewable energy portfolio standard.

• A minimum 5-year production tax credit extension.

• New interstate transmission infrastructure to move energy from remote wind farms to customers.

• Further R&D and program funding to help the wind industry grow more quickly.

• Federal agency support for siting wind farms and transmission lines.

Nuclear Energy. Obama typically mentions nuclear energy as a partial solution to climate change, even though he has no answer to the waste problem. His campaign contributions from the nuclear utility Exelon make him a pro-nuke suspect, as did his "yes" vote on the 2005 Energy Bill, which is making a "nuclear renaissance" a possibility. But grassroots and larger environmental organizations understand that more nukes are not a reasonable answer to the problem and have been working hard to counter nuke industry efforts. Nuclear waste is the most obvious problem, and the industry and nuclear-related federal agencies have been regularly stymied on that issue. For an excellent read on why nuclear is not an answer for climate change, see Carbon-Free and Nuclear-Free: A Roadmap for U.S. Energy Policy by the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research (www.ieer.org).

Coal. The coal industry says that coal is the answer to keeping energy costs down and for obtaining energy independence from foreign oil. But it remains the most polluting source of electricity in the world. Obama has often

touted his support for "clean coal" technology—though how the administration will show their support is a subject of wild speculation. As far as climate change is concerned, "clean coal" technology does nothing for decreasing greenhouse gases. The coal industry is pinning its hopes on undeveloped technologies to scrub carbon dioxide (CO2) from the coal and store it (by underground storage), in efforts to prevent its release into the atmosphere. Expect the powerful coal lobby to continue their campaign to increase coal use. They have been successful on many fronts but have also lost key battles to open new plants. They also are fighting for additional interstate transmission lines to move energy from remote plants to consumers.

There was some controversy in the Obama campaign when vice-presidential candidate Joseph Biden answered an activist's direct question by stating, "No coal plants here in America." The campaign was quick to back off on the statement, fearing the loss of votes in coal-producing states. On this matter, it remains to be seen what the Obama administration will do. An environmental-leaning Congress may make the difference here—with an increase in Democrats and environmentalist legislators well-seated on important committees.

Transportation. U.S. automakers and the United Auto Workers have long cited job losses and unwanted additional costs as an excuse for not producing environmentally friendlier vehicles. In reality, no jobs would be lost if they switch production lines to more fuel-efficient and alternative-powered vehicles. In fact, just the opposite happened when U.S. automakers were not ready with hybrid and fuel-efficient vehicles when people demanded them—and they lost business to Japanese automakers that were prepared. Now, U.S. automakers and the UAW are asking the government for billions to make up for their poor planning. In a switch to environmentally friendlier vehicles, there will be additional costs to be passed to consumers, like retooling factories for adding batteries and electric motors for hybrid and plugin hybrid vehicles—a near-term cost that might as well be undertaken now as later. Hopefully, the government loans that the industry is lobbying for will be tied to retooling for energy-efficient vehicles. Internal combustion vehicles are such a huge greenhouse gas problem that the industry must make changes right away. Transportation accounted for nearly 2 billion metric tons of CO2 in 2006, about a half billion tons greater than CO2 from coal-produced electricity.

On the plus side, the auto industry recently lost one of its most important supporters. In a fight over the powerful House's Committee on Energy and Commerce, Speaker Nancy Pelosi allowed Henry Waxman to take the chairmanship of the committee from veteran Rep. John Dingell. This chair has maintained a position of power for the auto industry, and is key to advancing—or defeating—many other environmental and social issues. Waxman is a progressive leader and has been outspoken about the need to deal with climate change issues. But what this move may also indicate is the level of concern that Pelosi and other leaders have in dealing with environmental issues—especially the reduction of greenhouse gases.

Despite (mostly) promising times, I won't make any promises. But at least the stage is set for the next four to eight years' worth of attempts to deal with the all-important issue of human-caused climate change. And, according to many who know more than me, that's about how much time we have to get a good, solid plan in place and implemented.


Michael Welch ([email protected]) leads a coal- and nuclear-free lifestyle in the Redwood-covered hills of Humboldt County, California.

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Do we really want the one thing that gives us its resources unconditionally to suffer even more than it is suffering now? Nature, is a part of our being from the earliest human days. We respect Nature and it gives us its bounty, but in the recent past greedy money hungry corporations have made us all so destructive, so wasteful.

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