Opinion

No quick fixes to our energy problems

In an era of high-speed cable, microwave dinners and 60-second news stories, the attention span of the average American is getting shorter by the minute. Television dramas can solve any problem in an hour and public policy debates resemble "The Jerry Springer Show." In-depth analysis and long-term thinking are not encouraged.

In this environment, it's not surprising that many of us expect quick fixes to even the thorniest problems. Take our energy supplies, for example.

U.S. consumers paid a record $251.6 billion for foreign oil last year, up 39.4 percent from the year before. Some politicians and activists claim the answer is to substitute biofuels for foreign oil. Bingo, problem solved?

Problem not solved. In reality, most biofuels include 80- to 95-percent traditional gas or diesel, and as long as we bottle up exploration for domestic crude oil, we will depend more and more on Saudi Arabia and other countries to fuel our cars, trucks, planes, trains and ships.

Renewable energy is another sure-fire solution, right? Not yet. While wind energy is taking a foothold, solar installations are very expensive and not cost-effective, even at today's high-energy prices. California, which leads the nation in the use of renewable energy, gets just over 6 percent of its power from wind and 1 percent from solar.

Hydropower is the most successful form of renewable power in use today. In fact, the bulk of California's renewable energy comes from hydro and hydropower supplies 80 percent of the electricity in the Pacific Northwest.

But many activists in Washington state don't want hydropower considered a renewable energy because they don't like dams. They're pushing an initiative that would require energy companies to get 15 percent of their energy from renewable sources by 2020, but the measure excludes hydropower.

Those activists are equally opposed to any new power sources from coal, even though clean coal technology shows great promise in eliminating dangerous greenhouse gases - and America is sitting on as much coal as Saudi Arabia has crude oil. In fact, half of the electricity produced in this country comes from coal.

It makes you wonder if the people proposing these ideas ever stop to consider the facts.

I would love it if we could instantly solve our energy problems by switching to clean, renewable energy that's efficient and affordable by the end of this year. I'd also love to be 6 foot 4 inches tall and look like Tom Selleck. Neither of those things are going to happen.

Where does that leave us? It leaves us with the realization that for the foreseeable future, our energy strategy will require a mix of energy sources that includes oil, hydrogen, natural gas, biofuels, clean coal, nuclear, hydropower, wind and solar.

We should accelerate our research and invest in new energy technologies in the hope that science will some day find "the answer." In fact, the federal energy bill pushed through Congress by the president last spring provides millions to fund that research and construct demonstration projects. But the truth is, there are no quick fixes - no grand-slam walk-off homers.

The idea that somehow biomass, wind and solar will replace the need for coal, hydropower and crude oil is nuts. Renewable energy is part of the solution, but it is not "the" solution - at least not yet.

Don C. Brunell is president of the Association of Washington Business.

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