On Energy, Can We Please Sweat the Small Stuff?

Is it time for a sidestep on the energy debate?

The current argument over climate change seems to be going nowhere fast. Republicans, at least some of the presidential contenders, seem less and less likely to take it as a serious issue. Democrats and environmentalists are still unable to push big ideas, like a cap-and-trade system, through Congress.

One idea has been to expand the debate from focusing mainly on climate change to focusing on the issue of whether the United States will have an affordable, reliable energy supply down the line. In both cases, the mission is to wean the nation off its overwhelming reliance on fossil fuels and expedite the development of practical alternatives.

Public Agenda’s research on public attitudes, the Energy Learning Curve, suggests that reframing the climate debate as a broader energy debate makes it more relevant to a much larger group of Americans. In some respects, the public at large has already accepted the fact that the country must develop alternatives to fossil fuels. Just a quarter of Americans agree that “if we get gas prices to drop and stay low, we don’t need to be as worried about finding alternative sources of energy.” In fact, over half (53 percent) of the public “strongly” disagrees with the statement. According to the Renewable Energy Business Guide, there are nearly 6,500 renewable energy businesses in the United States, more than 1,100 in California alone, so clearly, more than a handful of entrepreneurs see the possibilities here.

In The Washington Post, Stephen Stromberg says redefining the debate – and cutting a deal that goes beyond energy alone – may be the answer. Stromberg is not as optimistic as we are that putting the focus on the country’s long-term energy needs is the way to go, but he is after all, writing about what might get Congress off the dime. Just because the American public is ready for bipartisan, pragmatic leadership to solve the country’s problems doesn’t mean that Congress is going to provide any (that might be possibly the understatement of the decade). Stromberg suggests that Democrats might offer to compromise on Medicare or another issue that’s important to them as a way to move the needle on environmental issues. Maybe. We think Congress needs to find a workable, compromise solution on Medicare anyway, so maybe there’s something there.

But we’ve been thinking along a different track lately. Maybe the country should get going on some of the “small stuff” in the energy and environmental arena. We might even think of them as “confidence-building” measures. We aren’t just talking about more efficient lightbulbs and “vampire power” here. We’re talking about policy decisions. But they aren’t as ideologically divisive. It’s in just about everyone’s interest to solve them. They’re practical, and unless the country has entirely lost its ability solve problems, we should be able to act on them in some sensible, pragmatic, bipartisan way. Here are some that could do with some attention:

  • The Grid: Could we make some decisions and get going on rebuilding the country’s aging and creaking electric grid? People who care about having reliable energy should want to push ahead on this. People who support alternatives should too because the current grid doesn’t handle wind and solar power very well. The utility industry is completely behind this, and politicians should be interested as well. After all, the grid needs rebuilding in every Congressional district and every state. Lots of people should want this to happen. The White House made a new push on the grid this past week, with $250 million in loans for rural electricity improvements, but that’s pathetically less than what’s needed. The Electric Power Research Institute says the real bill will probably be more than $330 billion.
  • Nuclear Waste: Could we make some decisions and get going on the nuclear waste storage problem? This is not an optional activity. Even if we shut down every nuclear power plant and never built any more, we’d still have to find some way of dealing with the waste. Some in Congress are pushing to revive the Yucca Mountain national storage facility, a project the Obama administration killed in 2009. After what happened in Japan—where radiation from the waste being stored in pools on-site was as worrisome as the damage to the reactors themselves—isn’t it time to make some decisions and protect ourselves on this one?
  • Houses That Don’t Squander Energy: According to the Department of Energy and the Environmental Protection Agency, small changes in the way typical houses are built could make them 20 to 30 percent more energy-efficient. The agencies’ joint Energy Star Home” program promotes these design and construction changes nationwide. Going the Energy Star route not only lowers energy consumption and greenhouse emissions but actually saves home owners money in energy bills over time. So far, about 1 million new homes have been built to Energy Star standards since it started. But it’s slow going. With some 77 million free-standing houses in the United States, that leaves plenty of room for improvement.

The first two ideas probably need national leadership, but clearly there should be a large group of Republican and Democratic lawmakers who want these issues resolved. As for our energy-belching houses, the leadership could come from the states, localities, the environmental movement, and all those people who are always telling you how to save money.

At some point, elected officials in the United States may be able to develop a broader consensus about how to act on climate change and alternative energy. In the meantime, getting going on some of these crucial, but less comprehensive issues may be the best we can do.