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It's time for U.S. to pass an energy bill

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The old saying goes that if you put a million chimpanzees into a room with a million typewriters for enough time, one of them will eventually write Shakespeare. Unfortunately, we do not have a room full of chimpanzees, but we have the next best thing — politicians — and so far the results have been disappointing. Despite all the time that each successive Congress has had, our 535 elected representatives in Capitol Hill have not been able to pass a long-term national energy plan for decades. This hurts the nation because without firm, predictable policies in place, investors are unwilling to commit themselves to long-term investments.

The nation's energy future is at a critical juncture. Concerns abound about greenhouse gas emissions, the volatility of fuel prices, and how to supply an ever-growing domestic demand for electricity. Although the recession slowed down electricity usage, the U.S. economy is recovering and beginning to grow again, which means more fuel and electric demand. Also, over the last decade, the U.S. population grew by about .89 percent annually, or a net gain of about 2.75 million future energy consumers each year.

Consider the effects of increasing demand for electricity here in Maryland. The state currently consumes approximately 66,000 gigawatt hours of electricity each year. Over the next 10 years, the Maryland Public Service Commission expects demand to increase by 1.19 percent annually to more than 76,000 gigawatt hours in 2022. Under this scenario, the state will need to produce 15 percent more electricity than it currently does today.

So, what does all of this have to do with government? The answer is a bit disconcerting: Our elected officials have to 1) agree on something, and then 2) produce a thoughtful and long-sighted plan. It is long past time for the United States to make a choice about how it wants to consume energy. Do we want to continue the status quo to power America's energy growth? If so, then the right decision would be to do nothing. Not passing an energy bill, though, means that the United States is concerned only with meeting its energy needs, with little regard for the instability of our current energy portfolio. (For examples of instability, see natural disasters that release nuclear radiation into drinking water and coal-mining methods that involve blowing up mountain tops, razing ancient forests, and contaminating local waterways with hazardous and cancer-causing toxins.)

If, however, that is not how America wants to power itself for next hundred years — and I certainly hope that is the case — then it is time to stop dithering and pass a bill that shows we are ready to start investing in our energy future. Clean energy is no longer a pipe dream reserved for Willie Nelson songs and Al Gore speeches. In Maryland, which has implemented strong state policies to invigorate the renewable-energy sector, total federal funding for renewable projects was $4.4 million from 2009-2010, according to a study by the American Council on Renewable Energy. Over the same period, private funding was $153.2 million, and in 2009, renewable energy supported 4,586 direct and indirect jobs in Maryland.

At the national level, the U.S. attracted $34 billion in private capital investment for clean energy in 2010. That is a lot of money but less investment than nations that have designed and implemented long-term energy plans. The U.S. was long a world leader in clean energy investments, but it has slipped from its No. 1 spot every year since 2008. In 2010, the U.S. ranked third behind China and Germany, two nations with aggressive renewable energy targets, who attracted $54 billion and $41 billion in private investments respectively.

For all our flaws, the U.S. is still an innovative nation that is at its best when trying to do big things. Leading our nation on a long-term path toward energy sustainability is something that we can and should do. The private market has already shown that it wants to spend large amounts of money on this. What we need is a signal from the top showing that America is ready to see the green energy revolution through to the end.

If chimps can write Shakespeare, surely Congress can write energy policy.

James S. McGarry is a candidate for a master's degree in environmental policy at the University of Maryland. His e-mail is jmcgarry@umd.edu.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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