One of my biggest frustrations with Democratic leaders is their refusal to embrace the energy policy Al Gore outlined this summer, which could "end our reliance on carbon-based fuels" in the next decade.
Barack Obama has offered an energy policy that's a big improvement on what George Bush has done. Unfortunately, Obama still supports more investment in so-called "clean coal" and has not ruled out expanding nuclear power.
On the plus side, Obama also calls for generating 10 percent of our country's electricity from renewable sources by 2012--which sounds great until you learn that the U.S. has already surpassed that goal.
Look at what happened in the past year, even as the Bush administration did little to promote wind and solar energy:
According to the latest "Monthly Electricity Review" issued by the U.S. Energy Information Administration (October 3, 2008), net U.S. generation of electricity from renewable energy sources surged by 32 percent in June 2008 compared to June 2007.
Renewable energy (biomass, geothermal, hydropower, solar, wind) totaled 41,160,000 megawatt-hours (MWh) in June 2008 up from 31,242,000 MWh in June 2007. Renewables accounted for 11.0 percent of net U.S. electricity generation in June 2008 compared to 8.6 percent in June 2007. Compared to June 2007, wind power grew by 81.6 percent in June 2008 while solar and conventional hydropower experienced increases of 42.6 percent and 34.7 percent respectively. Geothermal energy also enjoyed a slight increase (0.8percent) while biomass (wood + waste) remained relatively unchanged.
Years ago, some people thought it was a pipe dream to ask Congress to require that 10 percent of U.S. electricity be generated from renewable sources by 2010. Yet even in the absence of a mandate, we exceeded that number two years ahead of schedule.
Just think of what could be done if we had a president and Congress committed to expanding wind and solar power in this country. Assuming Obama wins the election, we need to press him to raise the bar on renewable energy. If Obama suggests that the best we can do is 10 percent of electricity from renewable sources by 2012 and 25 percent by 2025, we will fail to capitalize on the opportunity to reduce our use of fossil fuels.
(Note: A commenter at another blog suggested that Obama may not be counting hydroelectric power as one of the renewable sources from which we should get 10 percent of electricity by 2012. If that is so, then we would need to approximately triple electricity generated by wind and solar in order to meet Obama's goal in four years. Even that goal doesn't seem ambitious enough to me, however.)
Perhaps more important, Obama and other Democratic leaders should stop lending credibility to the idea that we need either more "clean coal" or more nuclear power. We can meet our baseload needs without them. Every new coal-fired plant is a 50-year investment in the wrong direction, and every new nuclear reactor creates more waste we don't know what to do with.
The false choice between coal and nuclear power understates the potential to reduce our electricity consumption through conservation and efficiency measures.
It also affects decision-making at the state level. In April, the two Democrats on the Iowa Utilities Board (including key early Obama supporter John Norris) cast the deciding votes in favor of an application to build a new coal-fired power plant near Marshalltown. They rejected testimony from James Hansen and others regarding the adverse health and environmental impacts of coal emissions, as well as the utility's ability to do much more to promote energy efficiency.
Speaking to the Des Moines Register, they explained that they voted to approve the coal plant because they don't believe we can meet demand for electricity without new coal or nuclear power, and no one is seeking to build more nuclear reactors in Iowa.
Even with strong presidential leadership, we'll have plenty of trouble getting Congress and the states to adopt good energy policies next year.
Obama should set higher goals for generating electricity from clean renewable sources and make that (along with efficiency measures) his top energy priorities.