Congress is wrestling with its first energy policy update since 2005, and there is some concern that it may not be passed this year. That may not be all bad. An updated energy law is badly overdue, but the energy industry is evolving so rapidly that the partisan divide over energy and global warming may not reflect the current views of the electorate. A Gallup poll in March found that 64% of Americans worry about global warming, meaning that far more citizens than members of Congress take the issue seriously. Perhaps next year an energy policy that reflects the views of the American people can be coded into law to deliver the future the people want.
Energy policy today is buffeted by technological and political crosscurrents. Engineers and constructors have the knowledge and skills that will be required to execute whatever energy policies are enacted. Your voice can help to shape policies that will be good for the country as well as for our industry. Here are some principles that can guide a positive contribution to that goal:
1. We have just one planet and one environment. They must be protected while we develop an economy that supports prosperous human life.
2. Policy-making must be based on science, not on ideology, anecdotes and slogans unsupported by science.
3. Governments at all levels should enact policies, such as retraining, to cushion the blow for workers whose jobs in legacy industry sectors like coal are being eliminated.
Climate change is neither conspiracy nor hoax. The U.S. military takes it seriously: Military planning includes planning for national-security threats arising from social disruption abroad caused by global warming. Scientists worldwide, including the U.S.’s own National Academy of Sciences, support the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s conclusion that human activities are the principal cause of global warming. Our industry can make a major contribution to reductions in greenhouse-gas emissions. Policies that open doors to new construction will provide jobs while enhancing the country’s ability to respond to global climate change.
Global warming is the elephant in the room where energy policy is the subject of discussion, but there are many other things on the table too, some related to global warming, some not. Perhaps the decarbonization of electricity generation is the elephant calf. Renewable energies—wind and solar especially—are making rapid headway. While still small in absolute terms, they are outpacing the growth of fossil-fueled generation. Energy policy should encourage energy storage for these intermittent generation technologies. The National Renewable Energy Laboratory says offshore wind could generate 4.2 million MW—four times the installed generating capacity of the United States. Several European countries already have huge offshore wind farms, yet the first in the U.S. are only now being built in Rhode Island and offshore wind faces daunting obstacles in other states.
But a good update to energy policy would have much more to address than renewable energy. Consider this somewhat expanded list of technologies.
· Nuclear fission
· Nuclear fusion
· Small modular reactors
· Wind farms onshore
· Solar plants, both thermal and non-thermal
· Rooftop solar
· Hydroelectric power
· Many exotic energy schemes, e.g., tidal, hydrokinetic, ocean thermal, wave
· Fuel cells
And there are the many energy issues that must be addressed, in no particular order: Net metering, carbon capture and sequestration, gas flaring, hydraulic fracturing, pipelines, oil trains, energy-efficient new buildings, LEED, building code changes and federal appliance and lighting standards to reduce demand.
Sincere but naïve environmental advocates passionately call for fossil-fuel extraction to cease. That’s not going to happen because the United States as well as the rest of the world is not yet able to meet its energy needs with the renewable resources that can be installed today or even in the next 30 years. There will be no immediate shutdown of the oil, gas and coal industries, but a good energy policy—which must include transformation of the existing labor force—can put us on the path to a sustainable future for our energy sector.
With atmospheric CO2 concentrations surpassing 400 parts per million, vast ice sheets on both poles melting, sea level rising and backing up floods into the streets of Miami Beach and global average temperatures breaking records every year since 2014, denial of the science behind climate-change warnings is no longer tenable. Even Donald Trump, who has called global warming a conspiracy by the Chinese to destroy America, has explicitly cited the influence of global warming to justify his application for a permit to build a seawall for a golf course.
America is overdue for a new energy policy, and the E&C industry has a perspective no one else has. Let’s use it to influence policy for the betterment of our nation and of the world.
Tom Armistead is the consulting editor of ENR Energy. After a 23-year career in construction, he served 12 years as ENR’s editor for power and industrial news and subsequently for energy news.