Report urges resetting misdirected energy policy after 40 years

Climate change legislation may be dead and crafting a national energy policy may seem futile, but developing a future powered by clean energy is still possible.

The American Academy of Arts & Sciences dedicated its Spring 2012 Journal, Dædalus, to the alternative energy future, which was released April 25.

“There are a few things you can do. It turns out that people don’t think about the climate problem, but they do think a lot about local environmental problems that affect them,” Robert Fri, guest co-editor of the journal and senior fellow emeritus at Resources for the Future told GenerationHub.

Environmental policy, as a result, has influenced energy production and use. So while cap-and-trade may be futile an alternative policy like performance standards may have a similar effect.

An example of a performance standard would be corporate average fuel economy (CAFE) for automobiles, but they aren’t as efficient sending price signals.

Another recommendation is finding ways to close the commercialization gap for new technologies. “We spend a lot of time subsidizing technologies like wind, which actually work, but we’re not very good at closing the gap for really innovative technologies, where venture capital leaves off and where utilities and others pick up,” Fri said.

The final tool is better use of social science, as existing technologies aren’t being used to the fullest extent. “Getting people and institutions to use the technology in order to get a good energy outcome is a problem and we need to learn more about how to solve it. That’s better addressed by social scientists rather than physical scientists and engineers,” he said.

A prime example is programmable thermostats, which are a marketing and commercial success, but research has shown few consumers understand how to use them for their maximum benefit.

The journal tackles these and other energy issues.

The lead article, “The Alternative Energy Future,” was written by Fri and Stephen Ansolabehere of Harvard University. Ten other contributors examine initial steps the country could take toward achieving affordable, reliable, and clean energy.

The essays document a multi-decade record of misdirected policy initiatives and a history of underpricing energy relative to its societal costs. Two of the largest impediments to a successful national energy policy are political resistance to allowing energy prices to reflect their true, all-in costs and inadequate public understanding of the link between energy consumption and climate change, according to the Fri and Ansolabehere.

Other pieces include:

In “Paying Too Much for Energy? The True Costs of Our Energy Choices,” Michael Greenstone and Adam Looney draw from their Hamilton Project research to calculate that the “true social cost” of current energy consumption is nearly three times the amount that appears on utility bills.

Kassia Yanosek contends in “Policies for Financing the Energy Transition” that a transition to a low-carbon economy requires innovations and new technologies that can compete with conventional energy on cost and scale.