Sound familiar? Unless you’ve had your head stuck in the sand for the past couple of months, you’ve heard variations on this statement from both Barack Obama and John McCain… countless times. High gas and utility prices have collided with a stagnant economy, and energy issues (and the environmental issues accompanying them) have come to the front and center of the ’08 election cycle.
My colleagues at Red, Green and Blue have done a thorough job of covering the policy proposals of the presidential candidates. But the devil’s in the details, and NPR’s Talk of the Nation: Science Friday held a fascinating discussion last week on the issues that aren’t being covered in the political rhetoric: namely, the economic and technological challenges that both government and the private sector will have to address to get us to a clean energy future. Host Ira Flatow, New York University professor emeritus of physics Martin Hoffert, and Wallace S. Wilson Fellow in energy studies and associate director of the energy program at Rice University Amy Myers Jaffe took a look at the bigger picture of our energy challenges, and the kinds of leadership a new presidential administration will have to exert in order to facilitate rapid, even revolutionary, changes in how we power ourselves.
Among the questions raised during the discussion:
Who’ll take the lead: the private sector or government? While Hoffert and Jaffe held different opinions on whether business or government would provide the main stimulus for clean energy development, both agreed that major government action was necessary, and that current levels of funding for research were a small fraction of what’s necessary.
How long will it take? A ten-year time frame has taken hold of this debate, stemming in part from former Vice President Al Gore’s challenge issued in July. Rather than focusing on that particular time line, though, Hoffert and Jaffe offered ideas for making the sense of urgency implied in that framework a reality. Though Jaffe noted specifically that simplistic statements like “we can be completely powered by solar energy in a decade” ignore the technological and economic realities we face, both encouraged the political establishment to take concrete steps based on defined aggressive goals. Ideas included:
- A presidential “energy brain trust,” similar to Franklin Roosevelt’s War Production Board.
- Empowering the Secretary of Energy with foreign relations responsibilities: Hoffert noted that our energy security, and the environmental challenges which accompany our present course, are global in nature, and require a Secretary of Energy to look beyond the domestic picture.
- A national summit of the nation’s top scientists on energy technology, with the specific goal of breaking down narrow disciplinary boundaries; rather, put all of the county’s best minds to work, together, on a common goal of revolutionary change in our energy use and infrastructure.
- A focused discussion on the merits and drawbacks of centralized and distributed energy grids.
What will it cost? Hoffert suggested that Senator Obama’s pledge of $150 billion dollar over ten years was a good start, and both experts noted that infrastructure upgrades were a critical (and expensive) first step necessary to harness the full potential of cleaner energy sources. Storage technologies are also key to taking full advantage of our ample renewable resources, and funds would need to be earmarked for this important research and development.
The current financial crisis, however, throws a monkey wrench into these developments: with, at minimum, $250 billion dollars going to bail out financial institutions, clean energy development will be fighting for leftovers with other important priorities. Jaffe particularly noted the amount of venture capital and other investment funds moving towards clean technology, though, and believes this is a trend that won’t be stopped by the current mess. The bailout could even help keep this movement of capital flowing at a healthy pace.
Neither candidate has offered, thus far, this level of detail in his plans to address energy and environmental concerns. Both have made the connection between energy sources, foreign policy and national security, but the “hows” still remain a mystery. As we move towards election day, these kinds of issues could elevate the discussion beyond the usual “tit for tat” political discourse into a robust discussion of the centrality of energy to current challenges facing the United States.
This discussion won’t occur unless one, or both, of the candidates take this conversation out of the realm of typical political discourse, and start exerting genuine leadership. The discussion must move beyond drilling or not drilling, one technology vs. others, and which approach will play best in certain swing states. Both candidates need to trust the American public enough to bring up the challenges raised by moving towards more sustainable methods of energy production and use, and exercise enough creativity to make the connection between national sustainable development, and day-to-day kitchen table concerns. The arguments are there… who’ll make them?