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Our Energy, Our Future


Fri, May 30th, 2008
Posted in Commentary

It seems like every time America discovers it has a crisis on its hands, our government wakes up and proposes a crash program to fix it. Henry Ford was one of the first to observe it and even coined a name for it: "the crisis-crash syndrome."

Sometimes, a crisis pushes us to great heights - literally. In 1958, when the Soviet Union launched Sputnik, the first orbiting satellite, President Kennedy responded by launching a "crash program" to commit all necessary U.S. talent and resources to putting an American on the moon by the end of the decade.

And, amazingly, we did it. Neil Armstrong set foot on the moon July 1969, well within the Kennedy's proposed timeline.

As policymakers in Washington begin the daunting task of trying to reduce the greenhouse gases responsible for climate change, it is instructive to look back at Kennedy's example. The Apollo program harnessed the resources of government to make this stunning achievement possible.

But not every crisis leads to such an impressive result. The first Arab oil embargo of 1973 - 35 years ago - or the several more that followed over the years. Each time Americans were inconvenienced at the pump - often with no gas available at any price - citizens heard leaders pledge to develop a national energy policy that would free us from the sword the foreign oil producing nations hold over us and our economy.

However, every attempt to formulate a serious national energy policy fizzled under the stress of competing special interests pulling policy makers in first one direction, then another.

And in fact, as Congress considers various approaches to dealing with climate change, lawmakers are already hearing from many of the same special interests.

The goal of addressing greenhouse gas emissions may pose a more difficult challenge than reaching the moon. True leadership on climate change will require balancing competing goals that all serve the public interest. Keeping electricity affordable and reliable is just as much in the public interest as mitigating climate change.

As we race to develop the technology to limit carbon dioxide, we must also ensure Americans have the energy they need, not just in their homes but also to grow the economy.

Some of the legislative proposals under consideration, however, put at risk the current system that gives nearly every American access to dependable electricity. Congress needs to see the broader picture. That's where you, as co-op members, as electricity consumers, come in.

Each of us has a role to play in influencing this debate that will likely result in new laws on climate change soon after the new administration and new Congress begin their work in 2009.

Each of us has a role to play in making sure elected representatives remember their obligations to protecting the public's interest in maintaining affordable, reliable electricity.

Responsible leadership on energy and climate change means first answering hard questions about the economic impact on all of us. Congress must not only examine all the consequences, lawmakers should engage in an honest conversation about those consequences with constituents before taking action.

What they should not do is put in place arbitrary, unrealistic emissions targets set far in the future -when many of them will be retired from office.

Over the next 20 years, electric utilities must increase generating capacity by 30 percent just to keep up with projected demand. The excess capacity we enjoyed for decades has been used up. At the same time that lawmakers address climate change they need to address an impending electricity shortage, which in some parts of the country could be here as soon as 2009.

Some people say we can meet future demand through efficiency and renewable energy; and I am proud to say that Tri-County Electric Cooperative and our power supplier have had great success in those areas. We are quickly integrating new renewable energy resources, deploying demand side management tools, increasing system efficiency, and promoting conservation and efficiency at the consumer level. And while that is a good thing, it's only a small part of the solution.

We need to remind Congress that energy efficiency alone won't solve the climate change challenge. Nor will renewable sources of energy suffice. Today, just over 11 percent of co-op power comes from renewable sources. That percentage is growing daily, but renewables are a long way from becoming a major reliable source.

Simply put, significant reductions in carbon emissions over the long term will not happen without the same kind of massive - and expensive - investment in research and development that got Americans to the moon in 1969. Without leadership at the federal level, this investment will not be made.

Some people have proposed capping carbon emissions and letting the price of electricity rise. By letting the price rise, they argue, utilities could afford to pay for the new technology they need to meet growing demand and capture carbon.

But this approach puts the burden for mitigating climate change on those least able to pay for it. Consumers, particularly those retired or on fixed incomes, will not be able to afford electricity.

We must remind our representatives that the climate change debate is a debate with real consequences for real people, and their interests must be heard and taken into account in reaching a balanced solution to this complex problem.

What you can do? Contact your state and national elected officials to encourage open discussion between electric co-op consumers and elected officials about the challenge of keeping the lights on.

In my view, every Tri-County Electric Cooperative member must be involved in communicating with elected officials and helping them to understand that when the ink dries on any new legislation addressing climate change, the electric co-ops' twin goals of keeping electricity affordable and reliable must be found safe.

I want to ask you to go to www.tec.coop and look for the "Our Energy, Our Future" link. Enter your address and send Congress your questions. You can start with "What are you doing to make sure we'll have the power we need in the future?"

If we are united and clear about what we want policy makers in Washington to do - and I believe we are - then we will be on the phone today, on the Internet tonight, sending e-mails tomorrow, or writing letters to our legislative representatives every day.

We need a climate change plan that people can live with today even as they deal with the climate change problem of tomorrow.

We need a plan as carefully executed as FDR's New Deal or JFK's race to put a man on the moon. Public-private partnerships have worked in the past and they can do so again. But it will require an active role by our elected officials to provide guidance and support to those charged with the heavy lifting.

To be successful, the plan must be developed with the input of all parties, especially electric co-op member-consumers, and it must offer a balanced solution to climate change issues.

Far too often questions don't get asked by policy makers until plans go wrong. We believe it makes sense to know the answers before the laws are passed. You can help your elected officials and yourself by having this conversation. The electric bill you save will be your own.

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