Energy Plan Must Be Multipronged

Posted December 5, 2008 at 11:56am

We have a real opportunity to make progress on comprehensive and forward-looking energy policy in the 111th Congress. We have just elected a new president, Barack Obama, who campaigned on a strong platform of energy efficiency, energy security and renewable energy. That gives us the ability to harness his strong interest in energy to build an effective bipartisan strategy in Congress.

I put the principal energy challenges that we will face in the next Congress into six categories: deploying clean energy technology, improving energy efficiency, maintaining adequate supplies of conventional fuels as we make the transition to newer forms of energy, increasing energy innovation, making energy markets more transparent and maintaining the proper balance between energy and environment policies, especially as it relates to global warming.

The first major set of challenges is in the deployment of new clean energy technology — particularly in the electricity sector.

For many years, I have advocated a national renewable electricity standard for generation. We need a strong, long-term market pull for generation technologies that utilize clean energy sources such as wind power, solar power, biomass and enhanced geothermal systems. A national renewable electricity standard will enhance the diversity of domestic electricity generation, position the United States to regain the world technology lead in these areas and start preparing our electricity sector for the inevitable requirements to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. In the coming Congress, I think we have an opportunity to see this idea finally being implemented.

In addition to more renewable generation, we need to implement a smart and robust national transmission grid. I see significant bipartisan sentiment growing around the country that is in favor of addressing some tough issues that have kept us from developing a strong national electrical grid.

Another key clean energy technology for the future is carbon dioxide capture, transportation and storage. In the next Congress, we need to enact a comprehensive approach to this technology that addresses the need to rapidly deploy commercial-scale projects. There are important regulatory questions that we need to address, as well as funding issues for large projects of this type.

The final big issue with respect to clean energy technology deployment is the issue of financing for large-scale deployment of new technologies. For several years now, we have been looking for ways to facilitate the large-scale investments that are needed by the energy sector. We need to look at how we can supplement existing programs with other mechanisms to help finance large, new clean energy projects.

Improving energy efficiency presents a second set of energy challenges. We are all aware that there are major pressures to restructure the automobile industry. As we do that, Congress needs to create additional incentives for promoting energy efficiency in transportation. With gasoline prices falling, we need other economic incentives to encourage consumers to continue to buy the most fuel-efficient cars.

After transportation, the next-largest source of potential efficiency improvements is in the building sector. Our current federal laws to promote building efficiency are too weak. We need to do more to promote the adoption of modern, energy-saving building codes, and we need to do more to give building owners and prospective buyers more information on the energy performance rating of their buildings. Finally, we need to strengthen and improve our appliance efficiency standards program.

Our push for new clean sources of energy, and greater energy efficiency, does not mean we can ignore our existing major sources of energy. We must make the transition to an energy future where our reliance on traditional fossil fuels will be lessened. But that transition will not happen overnight. Our energy strategy has to make sure that we have adequate supplies of conventional fuels as we go through that transition. We need an intelligent policy to promote domestic production of oil and natural gas, both onshore and offshore.

Our ability to deliver new energy technologies and innovations depends crucially on our ability to fund new energy science and engineering, and on training the next generation of energy researchers, engineers and technicians. Our investments in these areas have been totally inadequate over the past decade, and we need to boost these levels substantially.

Along with enhanced resources, we need to take a look at every stage of the innovation process and examine how effective our existing programs are at spurring innovation. One of our challenges in the next Congress will be to see how we can set up an entity that focuses on prototyping transformative energy technologies that fall between the existing institutional cracks in the system.

A fifth set of challenges in energy policy relates to the functioning of energy markets. As oil and gas prices gyrated wildly over the past year, most of us became aware of what experts have called the “new fundamentals” in energy markets. Obviously, we haven’t repealed the laws of supply and demand, but there are other forces at work that are affecting energy prices, particularly in patterns of energy investment and trading. We need better data and oversight over these new market players and forces.

The final challenge I see is maintaining the proper balance between energy and environment policy. We face an international climate crisis that demands a worldwide revolution in energy technology if we are to prevent potentially catastrophic environmental changes. We need to push forward with that revolution, and we need to have a robust debate on how best to construct a mandatory regulatory regime to mitigate global warming.

We will best meet these six major energy challenges if we can approach them in a strongly bipartisan way in the next Congress. I am interested in hearing from, and working with, my Senate colleagues on both sides of the aisle in the weeks ahead, and in working constructively with them and the new administration next year. When the new Congress convenes, I look forward to putting forward energy legislation that will be both bold and broadly supported.

Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.) is chairman of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee.