Energy Policies for US from a Public Health, Environmental & Economic viewpoint

1. Introduction

The US faces important challengers for defining their energy policy. The US has a strong dependence on fossil fuels, and despite it is one of the biggest producers of them, they are, by far, the biggest consumer, so it relies greatly on imports. That implies geopolitical issues as well as security concerns. From the environmental and health point of view, a combination of economic liberalism, plenty availability of natural resources and ‘not-in-my-backyard’ policies have lead the young country to not concern about environment so much as European countries where these problems are perceived closer. That can be seen, for instance, in the high level of pollution of some places in the US, the lack of commitment with the Kyoto protocol or the individual car-based transportation system.

Nevertheless, the good availability of resources and the adequate economic situation (maybe not the best nowadays, but for sure better than the rest of the world) could facilitate the necessary change to a greener economy if the political will is strong enough.

In the graph bellow, the sources and sinks of the energy consumption of the US can be seen. Almost 80% of the energy comes from dirty and finite fossil fuels, mainly petroleum. The two main consumers sectors are Transportation (27%) and Electric Power (38.6%).

Sources and Use of Primary Energy in the US

Transportation is a big contributor to the energy, environment and health issues in the country. There are many policies which can be implemented in this area but the dependence on liquid fuels and the spread US neighborhood development are two important obstacles for the development of a new transportation system.

2. US Electric power sector

The U.S. electric power grid serves more than 143 million residential, commercial, and industrial customers, through more than 6 million miles of transmission and distribution lines owned by more than 3,000 highly diverse investor-owned, government-owned, and cooperative enterprises; resulting in probably the biggest and complex machine in the world.

Nevertheless, there is not a unified national policy on power sector, and the majority of the competences are held by States in a very heterogeneous way, and only some general interest and security issues are responsibility of the Federal government (through FERC and DOE). Important issues as the generation mix, rates, utilities regulation are State competences. (in many cases, even counties or cities competences).

US Sources of Electricity Generation

3. Policy recommendations

So, with all the tough restrictions those have been presented before, the definition of the US energy policy should be cautious but smart, introducing mechanisms which allow easy and small changes every year but addressed in the right direction to produce a big change in next decades scope. Small steps in the right direction lead to destiny, as a good pilgrim knows.

The principles or restrictions which drive the policy definition have to be cost-effective, politically realistic and objective-oriented. The goal is clear: reduce fuel imports, reduce emissions and allow economic prosperity.

Taking into account this, the energy policy should be focused in one simple thing: Reduce generation from coal and replace it for a combination of NG and renewables.

Fully Dispatched NGCC potential

US Natural Gas Production

US Natural Gas and Oil price evolution

4. Policies Implementation

It is not only important to recommend energy policy, but to suggest how implement it. And that is crucial in a country with such complex and distributed jurisdiction in power markets. Here, some ideas are going to be given to address with the practical sense of the energy reform. They are directed to different administrations, federal, state and local:

  • The definition of the strategic energy plans are nowadays responsibility of the departments of energy of every State according with its PUC. It could be more convenient that these plans (where the switch from coal to NG/renewals can perfectly be included) were agreed with a federal agency as the Department of Energy (DOE) and FERC. It makes sense since the effects of the electricity production not only involve a sole State, but the whole country (regional and global emissions, imports of fuels…)
  • Since Federal agencies have a narrow margin to impose legislation to States (litigation can convert the planning process in a nightmare), the Federal agencies can try another strategy. They can offer conditioned funds (for example those from ARRA) to those States which achieve the objectives set by Federal, for example, to reach a certain level of renewables, to coordinate energy plans, to open market for transparency, to coordinate lines with neighbor States, etc. The State have the option, not the obligation, to do the things right and get the funds (politicians would love to win them). It is making and incentive and leave competition works.
  • Municipal and local utilities should be under control of State regulators of PUCs, and the municipality governments should endorse it. Despite we respect personal freedom, it is totally unfair and biased that municipal utilities (as LADWP) do not have the obligation of the State Renewable Portfolio Standard, and they can arrange their generation structure as they want. It is unfair that, for example, in Los Angeles, consumers pay less for their electricity than in Orange County, because LADWP generates more with coal and do not have the obligation of buying renewables as SCE. And it is unfair because emissions from this decision affect equal both consumers.
  • Maintain and update the tax incentives to renewables. Without cancelling all subsidies (including those oil, gas and coal have), that it is not a bad idea at all; it is better to maintain, at least, the current incentives for renewables, as Investment Tax Credit (ITC) and Production Tax Credit (PTC). Moreover, a long term strategy should be done, to avoid the stop and go in investments that the sector suffers. Wind power is a good example, and just this year we are seeing the same stop as 2004 because the PTC has not been renewed yet for 2013. These ups and downs do renewables more expensive because companies and banks need higher loan rates to compensate the variable regulation risks.

5. Conclusions

As it has been explained, Transportation and Electric Power sector are the two main causes of the energy consumption in the US, and both of them rely so much on fossil fuels. Transportation is mainly dependant on petroleum (94%) because, however it could be hard to understand when you visit the gas station, it is actually the cheapest liquid fuel that can be found today, with the current logistic chain. For sure that there are alternatives, but it is difficult its introduction due to the great upfront investments they need. Even the EV will not be the solution unless Electric power sector changes before.

However, decisions taken in the Electric sector can be more effective and reduce emissions and consumption. Energy efficiency improvements has not been considered in the paper, despite they are totally recommendable, because they will be probably compensated with the increase in energy demand due to population and economic growth (forecasts say that the increasing on demand will be around 1% every year, and the energy per capita will decrease slowly till a 20% of current in 2035).

In Electric sector, the most obvious action seems to be reducing dirty coal and introducing renewables (zero emissions, zero imports but still expensive) with a combination of natural gas (less emissions, no imports thanks to shale gas and cost-effective). Achieving the changes is a challenge with the current market organization and regulation, so the political determination has to be strong enough to go together in the right direction and leave apart lobbies and particular interests in order to fulfill the general interest.

6. References: