A word from the president: Learning from mistakes provides great opportunity

By: Margie Brown, CIRI president and CEO

It has been hard for me to watch the tragedy of the Gulf of Mexico oil spill without feeling a good deal of sadness. I do not, however, lend my voice to the shrill criticism that has been tossed about – wildly at times. Undoubtedly, the effects of the spill will be felt for decades. We all hope that the apparently successful attempt to cap the well will hold until it can be sealed permanently.

While fault and liability have yet to be determined, I cannot help but wonder how much my own lifestyle and political complacency have contributed to the fact that oil and gas exploration is now occurring in deep, inhospitable conditions nearly a mile beneath the sea and more than 45 miles offshore.

Like most other Americans, I have enjoyed the benefit of low-cost energy. We all want cheap energy. As Americans, we have encouraged our leaders, in both parties, to set policies that externalize much of the cost and impact of energy in order to keep prices low. The predictable result is that most of us pay a fraction of the true price of the energy that we use to drive our cars and heat our homes.

In light of recent events, I suggest that we should reconsider our collective responsibility to do better than the status quo. Our country currently has an opportunity to put partisan politics aside and rebalance our national priorities to establish sound energy policies, policies that have a chance to move us toward energy self-sufficiency and, over time, to diminish our reliance on imported fossil fuels. Such an energy policy must recognize the hidden costs of energy production, transportation, use, and waste disposal inherent in each energy resource, including the environmental cost, so that all energy resources are judged on an economically level playing field.

I have four suggestions for a new national energy policy that would help.

First, pass a meaningful renewable portfolio standard, or “RPS,” that would require electric utilities to deploy or purchase renewable energy generation from such resources as wind, solar and geothermal. An RPS would help level the playing field between renewable and traditional fossil fuels. Renewables are clean, local and produce power that is not price-dependent on global fossil fuel market prices.

Second, renew and extend current development incentives for renewable energy projects. These investment and production tax credits, and other federal support, have spurred the private sector to make significant investments in the renewable power space. Extending these programs fosters a public-private partnership that harnesses the innovation and discipline of the marketplace to achieve the government’s policy goals.

Third, provide meaningful financial and regulatory support for the construction of electrical transmission and energy storage infrastructure. Achieving a meaningful level of renewable energy in the national grid will require a significant national commitment to the construction of new transmission and energy storage infrastructure.

Fourth, the federal government must impose mandatory renewable and domestic purchasing requirements for its own energy purchases. The federal government must not ask of everyone what it will not do itself. As the single largest domestic consumer of energy, the federal government can change the marketplace for energy simply by creating and enforcing meaningful policies in its own procurement code.

Many companies, including CIRI, are ready and able to produce energy from a wide variety of alternative energy resources. Developing these alternative energy resources and technologies, combined with more energy conservation, will provide long-term national benefits. New cleantech jobs and technologies that U.S companies, like CIRI, can export is one benefit. Another huge benefit will be our strengthened national security as we decrease our reliance on foreign energy resources.

Can all of this be done quickly and easily? No. Energy solutions are not simple. As we come to grips with what can be learned from the Gulf oil spill’s impacts on economies and the environment, we have an opportunity to place national focus on this country’s energy needs to develop the national resolve necessary to realize a more sustainable energy future.

The Deepwater Horizon Gulf of Mexico incident is not in and of itself a reason for wholesale change – it is simply a focusing event that highlights the risky, expensive and compromised nature of our current national energy policy. It would be a shame to waste this opportunity to make meaningful change. We can do better, and so we should.