What will it take to get energy on the agenda?

By Editors of POWERGRID Int'l / Electric Light and Power
The elections are over, the White House successfully defended by the incumbent and neither the House nor the Senate changed hands. Now reporters on the Hill and in the White House Press Corps are asking their questions about what will be on the agenda for the next four years.

Those of us in the utility and energy sector are wondering — and I hope we're not the only ones — whether energy policy will have any space at all on that agenda.

If you want to know what will be on the agenda, look at what the winner ran on. President Barack Obama and Gov. Mitt Romney's campaign was mostly about taxes, the economy and the role of government — although there were frequent detours into the realms of foreign policy, education and immigration reform.

Energy, when it was mentioned at all, was colored in extremely broad strokes. National politicians  seldom get much more specific than the standard lines about energy independence, and the latest buzz phrase appears to be advocating for an "all of the above" energy strategy.

Talking in broad strokes, though, never seems to produce a broad-based, holistic energy strategy that addresses how we generate, deliver and consume electricity. If we want to address the problems we face in this area, we have to get specific.

A complete energy policy would need to take a stand on what our generation mix would be. Where would we get our power from, beginning with what we have work with in the first place? It would need to address the fact that we still use an energy delivery system that Thomas Edison would recognize, were he alive today. How can we improve on that? Finally, our energy policy would need to make investments in the future — not in a way that attempts to pick winners or losers, but instead makes educated guesses at where we could get the most bang for our buck from promising new research areas.

Those of us in the energy arena already know what we need to do, but our friends (if any) in the political arena would tell us it's a matter of political will and ability. As I said before, if you want to know what will be on the agenda, look at who won, consider how much they won by and remember what they talked about before they won.

In this case, Obama won. Again, and by more than 120 electoral votes and all but one or two of the swing states. And he won without talking about energy frequently or specifically. Apparently he (and voters) felt he didn't need to address that subject in any great depth. When his opponent, Gov. Romney, mentioned energy, it was to express his fondness for coal and nuclear energy, or else to name-check Solyndra. There isn't much sign from exit polls that people who didn't vote for Obama made that choice because he wasn't talking about energy issues.

In all likelihood, this means budget battles and possibly immigration reform will probably take the front seat for the next couple of years as Congress handles the fiscal cliff and Republicans and Democrats attempt to find a pathway to citizenship for illegal immigrants that everyone can live with. Or maybe I'm being too optimistic. One thing I'm less optimistic of is politicians spending much time on energy.

So what would it take? I'm trying to envision a scenario in which energy becomes the No. 1 issue in American politics and coming up short. We just had a major blackout scenario with Superstorm Sandy and that didn't do it. Neither did the worst nuclear disaster since Chernobyl. Nothing seems to get people talking about energy, even though this is such an exciting time to be talking about it.

As I was working on this blog, I saw a report that White House Press Secretary Jay Carney told reporters, "We would never propose a carbon tax." It wasn't too long ago that a cap-and-trade bill was working its way through Congress — it passed the House before languishing and dying in the Senate. Cap and trade, itself a Republican idea originally, lost its luster in the highly partisan, budget-preoccupied atmosphere of Obama's first term.

Are there still some brief flickers of hope for a dialogue on energy? Well, I thought it was telling that in his election night address in Chicago, President Obama made a pretty direct reference to climate change — no doubt still thinking about the previous week's storm recovery effort along the East Coast. Although few are willing to point to a single storm and say, "This is climate change," it's hard to watch a storm of Sandy's sheer scale unfold without wondering if this kind of weather is here to stay.

In the end, I'm not sure what it will take to get energy back on the agenda. There are plenty of worthy approaches and plenty of policies Congress, the EPA and others could look into, but it feels like the will just isn't there, or else it's gone anemic in the past few years.


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