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Taking Steps Toward Energy Independence

The Boston Globe Joseph P. Kennedy II Vice President Cheney’s energy task force has a profound duty to put the country on the path to continuing economic growth through reliable and affordable energy supplies, with the ultimate goal of making the United States energy independent As one energy executive who actually likes lower energy costs, I agree with the administration’s long-term goal of energy independence but differ on how we should get there. What has emerged so far from the panel states the obvious: After years of inadequate investment by the private sector, billions of dollars of investments are needed to build new power plants, construct new refineries, and improve and integrate the national electric grid. Such upgrades should be made in an environmentally responsible manner with full consideration for the views of every stakeholder in the expansion of US energy capacity. However, several essential building blocks of a balanced energy policy have been given short shrift thus far -- conservation and renewable energy sources. If properly included in a diversified approach to the nation’s energy challenges, such measures will put the United States on a path toward energy independence while obviating the need to drill for oil in places like Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Vice President Cheney’s statement last week dismissing conservation as little more than personal virtue recalls the mentality of utility executives in the 1980s, when they fought ever effort to boost conservation. Thank goodness that has changed. Pacific Corp., and Oregon utility, plans to buy wind power generated from the world’s largest wind farm now under construction -- a 450-windmill facility to be constructed along the Oregon-Washington border. Here in New England, Boston Edison realized that they can make more money saving a BTU than selling one. Utilities in the Southwest have increasingly turned to solar energy to provide the region’s energy needs. Energy service companies, including two started by Citizens Energy, now work with utilities to install energy-saving technologies in commercial and residential buildings across the country. Distributed energy, generated by efficient gas turbines operating in the buildings they power, feeds excess electricity into the grid for other users. By proposing a 51 percent cut to the federal renewable resources research budget, providing billions in subsidies to the oil industry, and emphasizing oil supply, the administration is picking winners and losers in the energy game. Energy policies relying on petroleum are a winner for oil companies but a loser for energy independence. The United States imports 56 percent of its oil needs, with increasing dependence projected without a change in direction. A more comprehensive approach would have winners and losers selected by economics. The economics of conservation are compelling. Think of every energy-inefficient building in the country as a stripper well producing about 10 barrels a day. Rather than pumping oil, energy service companies save a stripper well’s worth of oil every day through conservation measures. New boilers, burners, insulation, and computer-controlled heat and air-conditioning systems in the federal government’s real-estate portfolio of 500,000 buildings would cut $1 billion a year in taxpayer-funded energy costs, pay for themselves in five years, and produce savings for generations to come. If every company bidding on a federal contract were required to operate out of energy-efficient buildings, the nation would realize further dramatic cuts in energy costs and consumption. Policymakers should realize the benefits of keeping dollars in the US economy by providing a one-half cent per kilowatt hour benefit to power produced from renewable energy supplies. Solar, wind, geothermal, and biomass power would thus use petro-dollars, which would otherwise be exported to OPEC, provide jobs here at home and incentives to develop even newer technologies. Efficiency ought to be rewarded. Bizarre anomalies exist in the energy sector that undercut the goals of energy efficiency and independence. Out in California, every large-scale air-conditioning system employs electricity to run its chillers. The electric grid industry secured the monopoly by getting the cost of power measured after it is produced rather than taking into account the two-thirds of the oil or gas used to generate electricity that is wasted in the form of thrown-off heat. Such distortions skew decision-making, forcing continued reliance on inefficient sources rather than turning to gas-fired chillers that are up to 70 percent efficient. As long as two-thirds of US petroleum consumption goes into the tanks of American cars and trucks, energy independence will be elusive. Such promising alternatives as hybrid vehicles using electric batteries to store energy from braking can dramatically reduce gasoline consumption. From clipper ships to computer chips, imagination and innovation have been the seed corn of American economic success. National policy ought to encourage new technological development, not enshrine a status quo that leads the country down a hopeless energy spiral. Four decades ago, America accepted the challenge to put a man on the moon within 10 years. The United States ought to take up the challenge of becoming energy independent within a generation through balanced policies that promote a new era of technology.

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