It's (Long Past) Time to Plan a U.S. National Energy Strategy

It's (Long Past) Time to Plan a U.S. National Energy Strategy

Over the next five decades progress to meaningfully address the risk of significant climate change will require an estimated 80 percent, or more, reduction in the global emissions of greenhouse gases. From the baseline in 2007 of over seven billion tons of greenhouse gas emissions, three-quarters of which comes from fossil fuel combustion (with the remainder largely from land conversion and forest burning), the reductions required are from a global emissions portfolio that is currently increasing.

As the largest current emitter, at roughly 25 percent of the global total -- but more importantly as the nation with the largest energy resource and research base to affect change -- the United States and its inaction on climate protection for the last several years is poised to play a critical role, if not the critical role in our collective climate future.

It is now very clear that through action or inaction, our collective climate future is strongly tied to what course the United States steers in the beginning of the 21st Century.

A range of technologies exist that can protect the environment and improve our economic and political security -- in many cases not at a cost, but instead with political and economic benefits to the nation in the form of reasserted leadership both technologically and financially, through increased geopolitical stability and flexibility, and through job growth in the clean energy sector.

To accomplish these goals, not only will a comprehensive strategy be needed, but we must develop a balanced approach that recognizes that replacing the vast infrastructure and economic machinery developed to exploit fossil fuels will be a central challenge of the 21st Century, and one where the fundamental mindset of large, centralized energy monopolies will need to evolve to one of a decentralized clean energy marketplace. This is the issue where -- more than any set of technologies or economic incentives -- climate change causes the most uncertainty, and in some cases fear and pushback.

Developing a balanced portfolio of energy research, development, and deployment projects is central to meeting the challenge of climate change, but it is equally clear that "technology push" projects must be accompanied by "demand pull measures." Among the most important demand-pull -- or market creating or enabling -- options available to us today are:
  • A national commitment to saving money and energy through energy efficiency measures at every step of the economic value chain (some states, including California are fully 40 percent more efficient than the national average);
  • The pursuit and steady increase of renewable energy portfolio standards as a baseline, and in the cities, states and regions with mandate to pursue more aggressive policies, the addition of feed-in laws to diversify and expand the number and type of clean energy producers;
  • Low-carbon fuel standards that evolve in time into sustainable fuel standards;
  • The use of carbon taxes or cap and trade'systems under which carbon emission rights are limited;
  • Developing and using for business, industrial, municipal and -- critically -- personal purchases carbon footprint analyses; and
  • International collaborations, and public-private partnerships designed to commercialize, or at least open market space for clean energy and energy efficient technologies.
This is a remarkably simple list, but one that has enough teeth, and economic opportunities, to truly harness the innovative power of the Superpower economy. It also happens to be a simple enough plan that a suitably committed presidential candidate, or president, could put it into action.

Despite a great deal of sound and fury, it is critical to recognize that we currently do not have an energy plan. In the United States arguably there has not been anything even remotely resembling an "energy plan" since the efforts by Presidents Ford and Carter three decades ago.

Recently, however, integrated planning on climate and energy has begun to emerge, although largely at the state and regional level. The precedent for this changing the course of national energy policy is, however, a strong one. Supreme Court Justice Louis D. Brandeis wrote in 1932 that:
… a single courageous state may, if its citizens choose, serve as a laboratory; and try novel economic and social experiments….
Conservative and liberal justices have quoted this line over 30 times in subsequent Supreme Court opinions. Courageous experiments are now taking place in a number of U. S. states, and can form the basis of needed federal legislation and leadership.

The Global Warming Solutions Act of 2006 (AB32) in California, as well as the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI) in the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic States are such examples. By contrast, the U. S. Federal government's current target will require only a slight change from the business as usual case (Figure 1). More relevant to the climate problem, reaching this target would actually allow emissions to grow by 12 to 16 percent. This target would thus represent a larger increase than the 10 percent increase that occurred in the previous decade.

If we are to be serious about meeting the climate challenge we need to set a goal consistent with the U. S. Department of Energy's Climate Change Technology Plan (CCTP) objective of moving in the long term (e.g. ~ 2050) toward 80 percent reductions in net emissions. In fact, the CCTP actually mentions a zeroing of net emissions at some time after mid-century.

The California climate change protection plan is one to carefully consider in developing a comprehensive climate plan. The Governor of California's five decade GHG emissions targets of 80 percent below 1990 levels (EE 3-05) and the 25 percent GHG reductions adopted via AB32 (signed on September 27, 2006) include both near-term and longer-term goals -- including market-based cap and trade mechanisms -- that delineate a path of emissions reductions toward climate stabilization. Congress should act to set a series of targets that show a clear path to meaningful emissions reductions.

Figure 1: Historical U.S. GHG emissions and targets

Actual U.S. GHG emissions from 1990 through 2003 (EPA 2005) in giga-tons of carbon equivalent. Four future paths for future U.S. emissions are shown; circles show the business-as-usual (BAU), or "reference case," as calculated by the Energy Information Agency (EIA). The diamond shows the Administration's GHG intensity target for 2012 of 18 percent below 2002 level in tons of carbon per unit of GDP, or a 3.6 percent reduction in emissions from BAU. The squares show U.S. emissions if the nation were to meet the percentage reductions that have been announced in California for 2010, 2020, and 2050 (California Executive Order 3-05, and California AB32). The triangle shows the U.S.'s target for 2010 under the Kyoto Protocol. Arrows indicate the levels required to meet the U. S. Department of Energy's Climate Change Technology Plan (CCTP) long-term goal of "levels that are low or near zero".

What is needed is a sustained commitment to emissions reductions and a time scale that conveys to the country the urgency of the need for future options. The California plan, for example, does not start or end with AB32, but includes a set of mutually reinforcing laws and executive orders. The most recent of which, the Low Carbon Fuel Standard (EE 1-07) makes a significant advance in our regulatory power to discriminate between the full range of liquid (petroleum or fossil-fuel based) fuels or electricity to power plug-in hybrid vehicles.
A Self-Consistent Energy Plan: Recent California Energy and Climate Legislation &bull California Renewable Energy Portfolio Standard (RPS): Renewables to constitute 20 percent by 2010 (& 33 percent by 2020)

&bull B 1493 (Pavley): 30 percent reduction in automobile GHG emissions (MY2016)

&bull Executive Order S-3-05: Statewide GHG emission reduction targets (~25 percent in 2020)

&bull AB 32 (Pavley/Nuñez -- The California Climate Solutions Act of 2006):
25 percent GHG reduction from stationary sources/statewide plan. CPUC action further requires that electricity sold into California meet a carbon standard based, today, on the current generation of natural gas-fired power plants. Further reductions will proceed as CA meets.

&bull AB 1007 (Pavley 2): "develop a comprehensive strategy…alternative fuels" and measure the clean energy jobs dividend

&bull Executive Order 06-06: Statewide biofuels production targets (40 percent in 2020)

&bull Executive Order 1-07: California Low-Carbon Biofuel Standard (& State of the State address, January 2007) The California plan represents only one such path to a low-carbon society, but it embodies the key features that are required in federal legislation: an integrated, consistent approach that both initiates early action and clarifies the long-term roadmap to a decarbonized future.

The U. S. has under-invested in energy research, development, and deployment for decades, and sadly the FY2008 budget request is no exception. This history is shown in Figure 2 below: federal energy research and development investment is today back at pre-OPEC levels -- despite a panoply of reasons why energy dependence and insecurity, and climatic impact from our energy economy are dominating local economics, geopolitics, and environmental degradation.

As an example of the "commitment" to clean energy, consider the U. S. federal energy budget. At $2.7 billion for energy research, the overall federal energy research and development budget request for 2008 request is $685 million higher than the 2006 appropriated budget. Half of that increased request is accounted for by increases in fission, and the rest is in moderate increases in funding for biofuels, solar, FutureGen, and $147 million increase for fusion research. However, the National Renewable Energy Laboratory's (NREL) budget is to be cut precisely at a time when concerns over energy security and climate change are at their highest level.

The larger issue, however, is that as a nation we invest less in energy research, development, and deployment than do a few large biotechnology firms in their own, private R&D budgets. This is unacceptable on many fronts. The least of which is that we know that investments in energy research pay off at both the national and private sector levels.

In a series of papers (Margolis and Kammen, 1999; Kammen and Nemet, 2005; Nemet and Kammen, 2007 -- all available from the RAEL website), my students and I have documented a disturbing trend away from investment in energy technology -- both by the federal government and the private sector, which largely follows the federal lead.

The U.S. invests about $1 billion less in energy R&D today than it did a decade ago. This trend is remarkable, first because the levels in the mid-1990s had already been identified as dangerously low, and second because, as our analysis indicates, the decline is pervasive across almost every energy technology category, in both the public and private sectors, and at multiple stages in the innovation process. In each of these areas investment has been either been stagnant or declining. Moreover, the decline in investment in energy has occurred while overall U.S. R&D has grown by 6 percent per year, and federal R&D investments in health and defense have grown by 10 to 15 percent per year, respectively.

Figure 2 shows all U.S. federal R&D programs since 1955. Notice the thin strip showing the small energy R&D program relative to other sectors. The current budgets for energy R&D would continue this situation, or even reduce R&D investment (Kammen and Nemet, 2005). This is not in the best interests of the nation.

Figure 2: Overall federal investment in science and technology, with energy highlighted as the third sliver from the bottom. Note the comparison with the life sciences R&D budget, directly over the energy component. The federal health R&D budget experienced a doubling from the mid-1980s to today, and at the same time, private sector health investment increased by a factor of 15. Source: Margolis, R. and Kammen, D. M. (1999) "Underinvestment: The energy technology and R&D policy challenge", Science, 285, 690 -- 692.
We are now in a moment -- perhaps a first -- where a growing view exists that energy and climate could be front-burner issues for candidates and voters. The time is right to focus on the energy system we want, not on the one we had, and sadly, still have.

Daniel M. Kammen is the Class of 1935 Distinguished Professor of Energy at the University of California, Berkeley. He co-directs the Berkeley Institute of the Environment and is founding director of the Renewable and Appropriate Energy Laboratory. He has appointments in the Energy and Resources Group and the Goldman School of Public Policy.