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America's flip-flops stunt energy policy

While some would like to discuss grid modernization (aka "smart grid") as if it's an engineering challenge, devoid of politics, the mid-term elections refute that notion.

Let's review. The economic crisis that threatened the country's financial system in the fall of 2008—and continues to keep nearly 1 in 10 American workers unemployed—sent Barak Obama to the White House. Subsequently, President Obama and Congress sought to swiftly inject federal dollars into the economy via stimulus grants. The federal government was the only player big enough to move the needle forward or at least keep it from sliding further backwards.

This sort of economic engineering is far from science. The term "shovel ready" has rightly been ridiculed as a misnomer, the stimuli often focused on Democratic priorities and stimulus spending has only begun to trickle into the economy. Yet the initiative was worthy in concept, if flawed in execution. That's true even if the details—such as matching funds for smart grid projects, including an emphasis on smart metering—can also be criticized for undue emphasis or delayed effectiveness.

The continuing upside is that this country is having a conversation about energy efficiency, the use of new technology and consumer participation to modernize the grid and use our resources wisely. Remember, many of the nation's major utilities stepped forward and essentially volunteered to be subject to emissions targets, before other sectors of the economy, to provide certainty for capital investment and to move ahead on a clean energy agenda. That agenda includes reducing air pollution and, possibly, lowering carbon and other emissions implicated in global warming.

Speaking of which, let's reset the conversation on climate change. The vast majority of scientists examining this issue have found through separate studies that the world is warming. The molecular signature of excess carbon in the atmosphere indicates it is anthropogenic. So, we are causing the atmosphere to warm.

That's where the debate should begin. Is that bad? What, if anything, should we do about it? Specifically, what sorts of economic risks are we willing to take to address it? What are the odds that our actions will have the desired effect? Are there ancillary benefits to taking action, such as less air pollution, implicated in heart and lung disease, or a clean energy economy that could propel America back to world economic leadership?

Global warming doubters are many and their views are understandable. All science is rife with uncertainties. A half-century of climate science is difficult for most to digest and discuss intelligently. Counter examples abound. Puny humans can't really be having such outsized effects on their planet, could they? Isn't carbon dioxide food for plants? "Climategate" showed that bad actors are everywhere.

These doubts are understandable and welcome in the debate. But anyone who really believes in a global conspiracy amongst tens of thousands of scientists to foment a "hoax" on the world for profit by a few is engaged in an adolescent fantasy fueled by paranoia.

But various parties—many of them industrial concerns that profit from fossil fuel extraction and consumption—have muddied the national debate on whether and how to address global warming by financing what otherwise appear to be grass-roots groups that create loud, distracting noises about the basic science. That's unfortunate for American leadership in the 21st century, because the actual points of debate—Is global warming bad for us? What can we do? What should we do, in an economically responsible manner? Is CO2 really the greenhouse gas that we should be focused on reducing?—are tough enough to crack. And the answers our society might settle on could support the thesis that no action is preferred.

Instead, we have no rational discourse on the matter. That will not serve our need to determine our own future.

Now, politicians who've profited from the secretive campaign contributions of those financing the noise that has derailed a mature discussion of our choices and risks have been elected to office. What has this furtive money bought for our country? Who has purchased a seat at the table in upcoming House deliberations? What has our collective amnesia and poorly focused anger at our self-induced economic mess wrought?

Meet the new Speaker of the House, Rep. John Boehner, R-Ohio.

"The idea that carbon dioxide is a carcinogen that is harmful to our environment is almost comical," Boehner told ABC News last year.

Rather, it is excess, anthropogenic carbon dioxide that is specifically implicated in a gradually rising global average temperature, and possible mitigation of this effect that is a matter for serious debate. (No one is claiming carbon dioxide is a carcinogen.) It has been shown that excess carbon dioxide in the atmosphere reduces the nutritional value of crops—can Americans grasp the implications?

Meet Rep. John Shimkus, R-Illinois, a candidate for chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, who has quoted from the Book of Genesis to establish that humankind cannot harm the planet. (Only "God" can, if "he" so chooses, according to Shimkus.) Last week: "The climate debate, at least for two years, has ended with this election."

Come January, these two men could well guide the national debate on energy policy, if in fact any such discussion arises. Meanwhile, the United States will further relinquish its global leadership and its own progress to cleaner energy and clean technology, the hallmark of 21st century global competition. I refer you to yesterday's coverage of Sec. of Energy Steven Chu's eloquent framing of that issue.

Personally, as an independent voter who has never affiliated with a national political party, I could care less what stripe is in power. My concern is with effective, forward-looking leadership. At least the current president has articulated national energy goals, even as he and his legislative allies have failed to promote appropriate legislation to achieve those goals. In contrast, the individuals now ascending to positions of influence over national energy policy have established themselves as water boys for invisible, well-monied special interests, as abysmally ignorant of basic science and unlikely to lead on national economic recovery or energy policy. (Yes, invisible, well-monied special interests control both parties.) On their agenda: rescinding federal stimulus grants for cleaner energy.

Americans have a right to be frustrated with the nation's economy and with an administration that has proceeded with legislative priorities that appear at odds with the effects of a historic recession. We do not have a right to forget or ignore our recent past, our own participation in the causes of this recession and the regressive policies that will result from voting in anger rather than rationality. Unless we consciously desire to relinquish what's left of our global influence, take a backseat to our economic rivals and kiss grid modernization farewell.

For more detailed treatment of the fate of the smart grid agenda under Republican House control, I'd recommend the GridWise Alliance President Katherine Hamilton's post-election blog.

Phil Carson
Intelligent Utility Daily




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