Will US energy policy push fossil fuels or renewable energy? Six essential reads

The U.S. is poised to sunset more coal plants under the current direction. AP Photo/Charlie Riedel

Editor’s note: The following is a collection of recent articles on U.S. energy and climate policy.

The United States is blessed with many energy resources: huge fossil fuels reserves and substantial renewable energy potential, from offshore wind to geothermal power. It’s also a signatory to the Paris Agreement on climate change and has committed to cutting greenhouse gas emissions by 26 to 28 percent compared to 2005 levels by 2025.

Will the U.S. meet those objectives and be a global leader on addressing climate change? Or will it abandon those commitments and expand energy production across the board in the name of energy independence?

To a large extent, these questions will be answered by what energy and climate policy the next president adopts. And on this point, the two candidates could not be farther apart.

Given how little has been discussed on energy and climate during the presidential race, we offer these articles written by academics to get up to speed on the issues facing the next president.

Federal research

To start, history offers some important insights on what not to do when it comes to federal energy policy, says Michael Webber, the deputy director of the Energy Institute at the University of Texas at Austin. A broad palette of policy options have been tried with varying degrees of success, but one that everyone should get behind is plowing much more federal money into research and development, he said.

“Markets are effective at setting prices and picking fuels and technologies, but governments are not. Despite how tempting it is to intervene, those are areas where the government should stay out. Despite those missteps, there are also notable policy successes. In particular, the government is effective when it focuses on setting performance-based standards and fostering a robust innovation system.”

Hillary Clinton endorses a huge expansion of solar, modernizing the grid and a number of other measures to create a “clean energy economy.” But do industrial policies that favor renewable energy and energy efficiency actually produce jobs as politicians promise?

The 2009 stimulus plan provides an excellent case study and, despite its flaws (who can forget Solyndra?), the results on jobs and renewable energy expansion are very clear, says Heidi Garrett-Peltier of the University of Massachusetts Amherst.

“Renewable energy and energy efficiency industries are engines of job growth, and that public support for these industries catalyzes private investments and spurs economic growth overall.”

Clinton’s plan calls for a huge expansion of solar power in the U.S., such as this utility-scale solar plant in Arizona. AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin

Republican candidate Donald Trump has provided fewer details than Clinton but has promised to bring back the ailing coal industry and roll back environmental regulations to encourage energy development.

Carey King, a research scientist at the University of Texas at Austin, points out that the person in the Oval Office has less control over energy markets and trends, such as coal use, than one might believe. He also challenges the notion of forever relying on higher energy consumption to fuel economic growth.

“As long as Americans believe we can and must grow our way out of economic doldrums on the backs of higher and higher energy consumption, we avoid that hard, but real, conclusion: growth cannot solve our social, economic and political problems.”

Obama’s legacy

Despite not passing any major energy or climate laws, President Obama has pushed through a number of climate-related regulations, notably more aggressive fuel efficiency standards and the EPA Clean Power Plan to regulate CO2 emissions from power plants. But both face headwinds, making the choice of next president critical to their ultimate impact.

In the area of fuel efficiency standards, John DeCicco from the University of Michigan spells out why low oil prices are imperiling the country’s fuel efficiency mandates.

Implementation of the EPA Clean Power Plan, meanwhile, was put on hold by a Supreme Court stay last year and its legality is now being considered by a lower court. After the stay in February, Cara Horowitz, the co-executive director of the Emmett Institute on Climate Change at UCLA’s School of Law, explained how consequential the next administration would be:

“A Democratic administration likely will reissue the rule to conform to whatever the court’s directives are, if that’s possible, and will simultaneously look to other pathways within the Clean Air Act…to achieve emissions reductions. With a Republican win in the next presidential election, by contrast, all bets are off for future federal climate change regulation.”

What happens to coal communities?

The EPA Clean Power Plan would likely mean more coal plant closures and the social problems that causes. AP Photo/Jeff Gentner

There’s also growing public recognition that any regulations to restrict CO2 emissions will further harm the domestic coal industry, which has been in decline for years due largely to low natural gas prices.

Three scholars from The Ohio State University took on this difficult question and argue for long-term investments geared at getting communities to a post-coal economy.

“We have found that entrepreneurship and creativity are key factors for promoting economic development in lagging areas of Appalachia. To support this approach to development, aid programs should focus on improving the quality of life in coal communities and attracting new, highly skilled residents.”

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