Any number of commentators have listed the energy particulars of both the Democratic and Republican party platforms. I’d like to take a moment to use their statements regarding energy to illustrate a recurring thesis for me: politics and the associated ideologies are enemies of the formulation of an effective energy policy in the U. S. Having skimmed both documents in their entireties, and studied the energy sections in detail, one thing is quite clear: neither is plan nor policy nor anything other than a set of future sound bites anticipating the denouement of the campaign. So, after first taking a shower and brushing my teeth to remove much of the unsavory residue deposited when one engages in political tractology, and in the hope of some intellectual catharsis, here are my further thoughts.
As usual, there are elements in each platform which belong in an actual “All of the above” energy policy. That having been my theme all along, I’m not surprised. What’s interesting – and amusing – is that both parties are aware of the popularity of that inclusive phrase and work hard to take ownership. For the Democrats it’s “ …wind, solar, biofuels, geothermal, hydropower, nuclear, oil, clean coal, and natural gas” and “…generating 80 percent of our electricity from clean energy sources by 2035.” The Republicans, asserting their heritage as the “…the party of traditional conservation”, state that ‘all-of-the-above’ means a “…diversified approach, taking advantage of all our American God-given resources… in a way that is economically viable and job-producing, as well as environmentally sound.” There’s no better illustation to the fundamental difference between the two parties regarding energy policy.
The Democrats goal of 80% “clean” power generation in less than 25 years (they count natural gas as clean) is a BIG stretch. By contrast, the EIA’s Annual Energy Outlook 2012 suggests coal will still supply 40% of our electric energy in 2035. That leaves us 917 million megawatt hours (M-MWhrs) dirtier than promised, assuming the small contribution of petroleum liquids-fired units disappears. We’d need an additional 116+ gigawatts (GWs) of “clean coal” capacity. Implementing either scrubbed coal steam or coal gasification combined cycle units would cost about $350B. If we use carbon capture and sequestration, the front-end cost is well north of $600B. Just to lend some perspective to those price tags, a recent S&P sector analysis cited an Edison Electric Institute statistic that the entire market cap of the investor owned electric companies in the U. S. was $472B at the end of 2011. That’s assuming the technology shows up (don’t hold your breath). If we just “win the war on coal” and replace that capacity with combined cycle natural gas units, we’re still talking in excess of $120B. Replacement via renewables would fall somewhere in between. All these costs are AFTER the cost of the replacement of retired plant (>88 GWs) and new capacity for load growth (>98 GWs).
The Republicans, continuing to promote the much-debunked concept of “energy independence”, do want us to clean up our act so long as we use the most economical resource available (which likely will include the burning of coal). Any environmental impact takes second place to “the free market and the public’s preferences” at best. In practice that typically means the cheapest energy around. And they do love them some coal: they mention the resource nine times. What are a little soot, ash and mercury if we can get a good price? They also mention the interesting possibility of using cheap natural gas with that coal to turn it into liquids. The Democrats don’t seem to be that clever. On the other hand, the Republicans don’t appear to realize we live in a closed box that is rapidly filling up with the concomitants of energy use, if it hasn’t done so already.
However, the most important issues are those things not said in the two platforms. Inspite of having claimed the mantle of the party of conservation (six times, no less!) and invoking Teddy Roosevelt, the words “conservation” and/or “efficiency” occur exactly zero times in association with energy in the Republican Platform. Apparently demand side management is simply not in their lexicon. The Democrats mention one or the other of those two words seven times, but five of them occur in the repeated phrase “fuel efficiency”.
The Democrats seem to choke on the word nuclear. They mention it only once, in the list of energy sources above. The Republicans write the word five times, seeming to have gotten over the American Nuclear Neurosis. They even mention the sterling idea of fuel reprocessing. Perhaps someone pointed out to them the current non-system for the storage of nuclear waste is possibly the largest single internal security threat we have. And if the incumbent party has difficulty saying nuclear, they print the forbidden name Keystone as often as their competition talks about conservation: not at all. Their adversaries invoke the name like a magus does that of his favorite demon.
So there you have the fundamental difference between the parties regarding energy policy: pie in the sky versus head in the sand. Neither party is talking about energy in a coherent fashion as much as talking to their respective bases in an incendiary one. Maybe after the election… Those concerned about 17 different, important and pressing energy issues will just have to wait for the day after the next First Tuesday in the November of a Leap Year. At least I’ve expunged most of that unsavory residue from my mind.
Image: Election 2012 via Shutterstock