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Why Is It that Other Countries Can Change Their Energy Mix, and We Can’t?

Here’s a depressing fact about energy use in the United States. According to the government’s current projections, we get about 80 percent of our energy from fossil fuels now. And in 20 years, we’ll still be getting 80 percent of our energy from fossil fuels.

Yes, we’ll be adding more renewable energy to the mix, and we’ll even stop building new coal plants, according to the Energy Department projections. But demand for energy is going to grow at such a pace that the renewables we bring on line won’t change our energy mix. They’ll just help us keep up with growth. And unless we change that mix, we won’t make any progress on climate change or energy security. We won’t even be able to keep prices reasonable.

The United States has been resisting making big changes on energy for years, in any direction. Other countries, however, have made big decisions—and they’ve seen big shifts in how they get their energy. As we wrestle with our energy options, it’s worth looking at what they’ve done—and the prices they paid to do it.

Denmark: Everyone knows its windy

What they did: Denmark is a showcase for wind power, spurred by the fact that the Baltic Sea provides a nice steady wind source, both offshore and on. Now Denmark gets 20 percent of its electrical capacity from wind, compared to less than 1 percent in the United States. Other European countries, like Germany and Spain, have also invested big in wind power based on Denmark’s example.

Denmark is certainly proof that wind power can work, but the Danes also have a couple of advantages over the United States. One is that Denmark is small, so the electricity generated by wind turbines doesn’t have to go long distances. The situation is different in the United States, where many of the best locations for wind power tend to be on the Great Plains, well away from the cities that need the electricity. To move that wind electricity to where it’s needed, the United States will have to invest in an improved electric grid, to the tune of at least $20 billion. In addition, the Danes put government incentives behind wind as well, particularly a so-called “feed-in tariff,” where taxpayers essentially guarantee above-market prices for wind energy to encourage development.

What it cost: Money. One huge tradeoff here is that electricity isn’t cheap in Denmark. The average Danish household pays some of the highest electricity rates in Europe: about 39 cents a kilowatt-hour in 2008, compared to 26 cents in Germany, 16 cents in France, and 11 cents in the United States.

Cooking With Gas: Great Britain

What they did: In the space of only about 15 years, Britain made a huge shift away from coal to cleaner natural gas—and that was a big shift. Coal is abundant, it’s cheap, and it has a storied history in Britain (rent How Green Was My Valley sometime). In 1990, it provided 65 percent of the United Kingdom’s electricity, compared to 1 percent for natural gas. By 2007, coal was down to 35 percent and natural gas was up to 42 percent. That’s one reason why greenhouse gas emissions in Britain have stayed relatively flat over that period.

What it cost: Coal jobs Britain had a thriving coal industry for more than a century, and it doesn’t anymore. The “dash for gas” is one reason why the British mining industry, once the nation’s largest employer, has shriveled. There were 170 working coal pits in Britain in 1984; by 2004 there were only 12. In fact one of the biggest controversies in Britain during the 1990s was whether the government’s steps to privatize the electrical industry and encourage gas were really intended to break the once-powerful coal miners’ union. Plus, despite the fact that it’s one of Europe’s biggest producers of natural gas, the U.K. still has to import gas to meet demand.

Nuclear Savoir Faire: France

What they did: After the OPEC oil embargo in the early 1970s, France committed to nuclear power as a way of improving their energy security. In 1980, the French got 24 percent of their electricity from nuclear power, compared to 27 percent from coal and 19 percent from oil. By 1990, French electricity was 75 percent nuclear.

What it cost: The ability to change their minds. The Japanese government, not surprisingly, dropped its plans to expand nuclear power after the Fukushima accident. By contrast, the French have stuck with nuclear power through Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, and Fukushima. Since they have 58 difficult-to-decommission reactors in service, they probably couldn’t change course easily even if they wanted to. Fortunately their safety record has been excellent (to the point where France is one of the major exporters of nuclear technology). They also made a much different choice than other countries on the problem of disposing of nuclear waste. Instead of burying it or storing it on site as we do in the United States, they recycle or “reprocess” it so it can be used again. In fact about 17 percent of French electricity is from recycled fuel, and they often take in nuclear waste from other countries and reprocess it for them.

You can agree or disagree with any of these nations’ choices, but the fact is they all managed to make significant shifts in their energy mix in relatively short periods of time. It’s easy to get into the weeds of the specific policy decisions here, like feed-in tariffs or privatizing electric companies. But those tactical choices aren’t the killer app here.

The big difference between us and them is that these countries were willing to make a bigger, more fundamental social tradeoff. They accepted the costs of their decision, whether it was closing coal mines in Britain, the risk of a nuclear accident in France, or the Danes’ willingness to pay higher electricity bills than countries just an hour’s drive away. Every form of energy has pros and cons, and the citizens in these nations seem to accept that.

In the United States, we like to think of ourselves as a can-do country, but in fact, we’re so easily deterred. It puts us in mind of the movie The Shawshank Redemption, where most of the prisoners give up and accept their lot – except for the one man who’s willing to take decades to dig a tunnel, then crawl through a sewer pipe to freedom. Andy Dufresne understood making a plan and sticking with it, even if it was ungodly unpleasant.

By contrast, we’ve been lousy at making energy tradeoffs. We keep looking for the perfect energy source: cheap, clean and most of all, noncontroversial. Until we find it, everyone seems to have a veto, and no one can make a decision. But in the real world, that perfect energy source doesn’t exist. Until we accept that fact and show we can live with the trade-offs, we’ll keep running in place.