Vermonters can confidently reject nuclear, coal, gas and wind from the comfort of their warm and well-lit homes because shirking responsibility for their energy supply has few consequences. They can draw electricity from a regional power grid and import energy-intensive goods by exhaust-belching truck. Their 75%-renewable goal presumes the availability of someone else’s nonrenewable plants to keep the lights on when the wind isn’t blowing and the sun isn’t shining. Those plants will be operating affordably only if other states remain committed to a conventional grid.
It’s time for a fresh look at U.S. energy and environmental policy. An agenda that maximizes the potential of America’s natural resources while striking a better balance between industry and environmental protection could unleash substantial economic growth and job creation at no cost to taxpayers. Here are four steps that Congress and the new Trump administration can take.
Nuclear power consumption actually declined between 2008 and 2015. (It grew during the Bush administration.) Wind and solar power consumption increased by only 1.6 quadrillion BTUs, or less than 2 percent of the total American energy mix. (Its growth rate was higher during the Bush administration, albeit from a much lower base.) Natural gas consumption, meanwhile, increased by 4.5 quadrillion BTUs--three times the increase for nuclear, wind, and solar combined. All told, natural gas has reduced carbon-dioxide emissions ten times faster than solar power has.
U.S. greenhouse gas emissions have fallen significantly since their peak in 2007--more than in any other country. The biggest cause is America's fracking-led natural gas boom: solar power is responsible for 1 percent of the decline in U.S. carbon-dioxide emissions; natural gas is responsible for nearly 20 percent.
Good policy emphasizes basic and applied research at the pre-commercial stages, perhaps up to the point of demonstration projects. Such government funding is worthwhile across a range of industries because returns from early-stage research are often too speculative and long-term to attract private investment, and because the knowledge created by breakthroughs is spread widely instead of being captured by the inventor. It is doubly worthwhile in the context of climate change, where the societal benefits of success would far exceed the private gains.