By Nick Esch, Fall 2016 Fellow
The word Energy may be just 6 characters long, but it’s constant availability and security is essential to preserving the modern way of life many Americans have come to take for granted. To date, the United States lacks a comprehensive long-term national energy plan that ensures the security of our energy future. This failure represents the single greatest national security threat this country faces today.
Infrequent + Conflicting + Narrow = US Energy Policy
Over the past few decades there have been merely three major energy policy acts signed into law. Each piece of legislation addresses only a few facets of the nation’s energy policy, which are typically passed on reactionary terms. Today an energy bill is being discussed in congress, almost 9 years since the last act was singed into law, with a diminishing hope of passing.
The three acts, passed in 1992, 2005, and 2007, have accomplished significant feats such as defining fuel and electricity conservation measures, creating wholesale electricity markets, establishing net metering, and establishing tax incentives for renewables. However, these acts actions have been narrowly focused and have, at times, established conflicting energy policies. In the electricity sector incentives are given to both nascent and established sources of generating resources, creating uneven and complicated playing fields where these different resources compete. In the transportation sector, the gasoline tax, which funds the Highway Trust Fund, has been stagnant since 1993. At the same time vehicles are federally mandated to be increasingly fuel efficient by the CAFE standards. As a result, the Highway Trust Fund has received multiple infusions from the general fund because more fuel-efficient vehicles are contributing fewer and fewer tax dollars per mile of wear and tear on highways, bridges, and other transportation infrastructure.
In short, the country’s current federal lawmakers have consistently ignored market, resource, and technological realities while failing to comprehensively address our nation’s energy policy, putting the country’s national energy security at risk.
Timing is everything
Despite the lack of clear energy policy, the nation’s energy system is primed for change. The rise of advances in computing power, domestic fossil fuel resource recovery, energy storage, and falling prices of sustainable generating technologies each present challenges and opportunities for the nation’s energy system. Coupled with these technological advances is the emerging social consensus that human-caused climate change is largely caused by carbon intensive energy sources.
The confluence of technological progress and a social movement presents the optimal ingredients to commit the nation’s energy system to transition to one that is sustainable and increasingly free of international influence, while maintaining the affordability, reliability, and security.
Who is responsible for a plan?
Today the responsibility for creating a comprehensive energy plan is not clearly defined and by default the responsibility of elected federal lawmakers. This presents a serious problem. This group of elected officials is subject to frequent changes in party control and therefore prohibitive of stable energy policy, which requires a consistent long-term approach.
A glaring example of the effect changes in political control has on energy policy can be seen in the 1980s. Ronald Reagan nearly abolished the renewable energy R&D budget, effectively wiping out the entirety of Jimmy Carter’s multibillion dollar efficiency and clean energy efforts. The cycle is set to repeat itself, given the incoming administration and congress’ promise to dismantle President Obama’s Clean Power Plan.
Outside of changes in political control, the U.S. has been put at risk by the gross political neglect on both sides of the aisle. A prime example is the failure to adequately store the country’s spent radioactive waste. A long-term storage facility was built in Nevada’s Yucca Mountain, so far costing taxpayers $96 billion, but its use was averted for purely political reasons. Today, the majority of spent nuclear waste is stored onsite at nuclear power plants, which are not intended for long term storage. This waste is at high risk of leakage and is essentially a dirty bomb if an explosive is detonated nearby.
In short, the seemingly perpetual political seesaw and neglect has been the bane of the nation’s long term energy security.
The Energy Fed
The lack of a national energy plan can be attributed to the enormity of the task and the political consensus that must be maintained. Designing, implementing, and enforcing such a comprehensive plan requires immense political and social will, as well as a full understanding of the realities of the vast and complex national energy system—A near impossible task for modern U.S. politics.
A time may come when the responsibility of the nation’s energy planning must be relinquished from political influence by creating an independent regulatory body that is separate from the United States government. Similar to the structure of the Federal Reserve, this regulatory body would be called the “Energy Fed”.
The Energy Fed would be responsible for the design, implementation and enforcement of a comprehensive national energy plan that ensures the nation’s energy system transitions to a sustainable, affordable, reliable and secure future state. Their regulatory power would be purely financial and ideally be funded by an escalating carbon tax. The funds would be disbursed to states and intra state energy infrastructure projects similar to the Highway Trust Fund’s current appropriation, so long as states met standards set by the Energy Fed’s plan. This form of “financial regulatory power” is not new. In 1984, President Reagan set “target” for each state to set the legal drinking age to 21 in order to continue receiving their share of the Highway Trust Fund.
To avoid short term political influence, the Energy Fed would be chaired by an individual serving a 5-year term appointed by the sitting President, with the advice and consent of the senate. A chairman is responsible for appointing one of the 5 Energy Fed commissioners every two years, who each serve 10-year terms. Under these term lengths, a sitting president can appoint just one chairman and therefore just two commissioners, requiring three presidential terms, and 15 years, to obtain a majority.
The proposal to great such a regulatory body may seem radical, but it will assure that the U.S. does not face a crippling energy crisis caused by political neglect. National security is not a partisan issue, and neither is planning for our nation’s long term energy security.
Nick Esch is a Fellow with the Clean Energy Leadership Institute and a Research Associate with the Smart Electric Power Association (SEPA).