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Reenergize America - a Democratic blueprint

(Second Draft)
by Meteor Blades
written in collaboration with Jerome a Paris and Devilstower, with a hat tip to Doolittle Sothere

Almost three weeks ago, Jerome a Paris put together the first draft of what we hope to transform into a bold, consistent, easy-to-understand Democratic energy agenda. Readers were asked to offer your own ideas, and your response was gratifying. Today, we're presenting the Second Draft, in which we've added some of your ideas, further honed ours and polished some of the language, with your assistance.

We're not done yet. This draft won't be the last. So we're asking for your help again, both for content and style. We don't mind if you nitpick. We want to hear your ideas and objections, big and small. Ultimately, of course, somebody has to decide what the Final Version will look like, and that will be the three of us. But for now, every word, every idea and the format itself are fair game for critiquing.


Meteor Blades's diary

Meteor Blades's diary :: ::

Dozens of progressive energy proposals are floating around. Apollo Alliance's, the Natural Resource Defense Council's and the National Sustainability Act's, to name a few. Moreover, Senator Harry Reid himself has produced a forward-looking, multifaceted proposal that would head us in the right direction, even though we view its goal of "energy independence" by 2020 as infeasible. Others in the Senate Democratic leadership are creating a party agenda that will also call for energy independence. Senator Joe Lieberman is proposing almost radical energy legislation.

After decades of foot-dragging by leaders in both parties, it's heartening to know that Democratic leaders are coming to understand just how crucial a visionary energy agenda is for our nation's future.

A truly progressive approach cannot, however, be merely a scheme to garner votes in '06 and '08. As long-time advocates for a new energy paradigm at a time when scarcely anyone was listening, the three of us are eager to see rapid changes in government policy, private sector innovation and personal behavior when it comes to energy. However, setting unrealistic timelines is a certain recipe for failure. We don't want Democrats to make promises that can't be kept or establish goals that can't be met. We don't believe in the scattergun approach, nor do we believe in magic bullets.

In the process of generating the Second Draft, we have done our best not to allow the perfect to get in the way of the good. We've taken some of our ideas, some of your ideas and some other people's ideas, including Senator Reid's, and tried to shape them into an integral whole against a reasonable timeline. Even the three of us have disagreements - about coal and nuclear, for instance - so Reenergize America is, from the get-go, a compromise.

As a document, Reenergize America comes in three parts: 1) an introduction to four concise, stand-alone statements of principle describing America's energy situation and what should be done to change it; 2) a brief explanation of each statement; and, 3) specific proposals, most of them legislative, to transform into reality the ideas encompassed in the statements of principle.
As we all know, energy's not a sexy subject for most voters, and they will never get past our statement of principles. But if they only read those, they'll know what we stand for and why this energy plan makes sense. It even fits on a double-entendre bumper-sticker: Reenergize America - Vote Democratic.

Down to business.

          Reenergize America - A Democratic Blueprint

As a consequence of the oil embargos of the 1970s, America took a few steps down the right path thanks to President Carter's energy plan of 1977. However, plummeting oil prices in the early 1980s worked to the advantage of politicians who were hostile to conservation, energy efficiency and the development of renewable alternatives. America wasted 25 years during which great strides could have been made toward realizing a world based on new sources of energy.

Faced not with embargos, but rather with a far greater crisis, Congress recently adopted an energy policy that repeats most of the mistakes of the past quarter century. If this policy is not reshaped from bottom to top, we could waste another 25 years, with consequences catastrophic for our society, our political system, our economy and for the environment.

The question we must ask is how to avoid leaving such a legacy to our children and grandchildren.

Anyone who is serious about national and economic security knows we must be serious about moving our country toward real energy independence. This process cannot be achieved overnight. It will take a generation at least - which is all the more reason we must begin immediately. Our plan will create innovative new jobs and build a cleaner, greener and stronger America.

To Reenergize America, we support four principles:

  • Boost energy security to strengthen our national security.

  • Reject current energy policies that weaken America
  • Promote energy efficiency, diversity and conservation to protect Americans and the environment.
  • Invest in renewable energy to create jobs and enhance America's technological leadership

Build energy security to strengthen our national security: Diplomacy, homeland security and the economy are all connected through our energy policies. America imports 60% of the oil it consumes and our demand continues to grow, even as the production of oil moves toward inevitable decline. Our dangerous dependence on foreign oil - much of it from unstable countries -  puts our servicemen and women at risk and holds our foreign policy hostage. America will increasingly be competing with China and other nations for dwindling oil supplies, causing prices to rise, laying the foundation for economic turmoil and presenting grave threats to peace as countries mobilize to protect their interests. Only by establishing policies that wean us off gas and oil can we avoid a disruptive and potentially lethal outcome in this coming scramble.

Reject the Current Energy Policy that Weakens America: Originally crafted in secret by oil and gas lobbyists under the direction of Vice President Dick Cheney, the Republican energy plan is a blueprint for ruin that repeats all the mistakes of the past. This attempt to drill our way out of the mess we've made for ourselves increases America's reliance on imported oil, undermines environmental regulations, ignores global climate change, harms the economy and continues to put us at risk at home and abroad. Meanwhile, billions of tax dollars are being siphoned off by well-established oil and gas companies, whose wallets already bulge with record-breaking profits, and pitiful amounts are allocated for alternative energy sources and conservation. It is time to put the needs of all Americans ahead of the greed of a few.

Promote energy efficiency, diversity and conservation to protect Americans and the environment: America must quickly move to diversify its energy sources to avoid catastrophe when any one source is interrupted, and we must become more efficient consumers of energy to make what we do have last longer. We support an Apollo Project for Energy to support research, development and commercialization of alternative energy sources. Our plan calls for Renewable Portfolio Standards and for a National Conservation and Efficiency Program. We seek enhanced incentives for energy production from solar, wind, geothermal and biomass, and for government-funded demonstration projects in coal-to-liquids technology and intrinsically safe nuclear power designs. Our plan envisions a rapid expansion in the percentage of cars and trucks that pollute less and travel farther on a gallon of fuel. Reenergize America calls for protection of pristine public lands and ensures that higher energy prices will not unfairly penalize our economically weakest citizens.

Invest in renewable energy to create jobs and enhance America's technological leadership: Innovation is an American birthright, but short-sighted policies have sabotaged our technological lead. Twenty years ago, American-made wind turbines were the world's most advanced. Now Denmark's are. GM once led the world in automobile technology. Now Toyota does. We must restore America's technological prowess. Public and private investments today in renewable energy will mean a better environment for our children tomorrow, well-paying jobs and the lead in vital and exportable technologies. Renewable energies provide more jobs than other energy sources, and these jobs will always be close to home. Our plan calls for investments in math and science education for the next generation of energy engineers, access to worker training and retraining in advanced energy technologies, and for making America the first place everyone turns when looking for innovative energy products.

       Reenergize America's SMART Goals

A snap of the fingers will not transform those four statements of principle into policy. Our goals to Reenergize America are simple and straightforward. They will not, however, be easy to accomplish because old habits die hard and there are powerful people and institutions which stand in the way:

  • 20% of our electricity from renewables by 2020

  • 20% reduction of imported oil and natural gas by 2020
  • 20% reduction in our carbon emissions by 2020

Call these our SMART goals. They are Strategic, Measurable, Aggressive, Realistic and Targeted. They are Strategic in that they greatly reduce our dependence on foreign oil and help make America more secure. They are Measurable and progress will be visible to all. They are Aggressive because we need to begin what will be a decades-long move away from our dependence on foreign oil before it is too late. They are Realistic because they are attainable, although they will require significant investment, sustained personal commitment and strong political leadership. They are Targeted at developing renewable energy sources, improving energy efficiency and protecting our environment.

       Are these goals sound?

Some will ridicule our goals as overly ambitious: not possible. Nobody can make such a transition in so short a time, they will say. We disagree. We believe these goals are attainable, although we are acutely aware of the technical, institutional, political and cultural obstacles to success.

Others will say we haven't gone far enough. Why not full "Energy Independence by 2020," as proposed by Harry Reid? This time, it is we who say: not possible. Pushed hard and consistently, maybe independence by 2035 or 2040. The switch to all-renewable energy will take decades longer.

       Reenergize America - First Things First

While the full transition to new energy will take decades and include retooling our country's infrastructure and redesigning our cities, much can and should be done immediately to reduce energy demand, increase efficiency and buy us time. We can't afford to wait, and we don't plan to wait. During the first 100 days of Reenergize America, we will initiate the following 17 proposals:

Transportation

  1. The Automotive Mileage and Pollution Credit Act: Forget Corporate Average Fuel Economy standards, which were established to gradually increase how far the average car could travel on a gallon of fuel. These were a good idea and had a positive initial effect after Congress passed them into law 30 years ago. Since then, however, Republicans have used CAFE standards as a propaganda tool against Democrats, and automakers have creatively avoided them by reclassifying vehicles. We propose a fresh approach to replace both CAFE standards and the current federal rebate on fuel-stingy hybrids.

    Anyone who buys a car or pickup truck gets a $200 rebate for every mile per gallon the new vehicle comes in above the national mpg average. That average is now 19 mpg. So, buy a Ford Explorer hybrid, which has a 33 mpg rating, and you collect $2800. The rebate program won't discriminate. Hybrids, turbo-biodiesels and fuel-cell cars all qualify.

    A secondary rebate will apply to vehicles based on a formula for how much they pollute.

  2. Government Fleet Conversion Act: Require all federal operations to switch their entire fleet to hybrids or other high-mpg, low-polluting vehicles and to offer incentives to state and municipal governments to do the same over a period of, say, three years. Such a program should begin immediately, but U.S. manufacturers have been slow to enter the high-mpg market. A program that spurs the purchase of foreign-made cars and light trucks would probably mean additional erosion in the jobs of American union members. To give all manufacturers a fairer chance to compete, the switchover will begin two years from the signing of this act. If that were to occur in January 2006, for instance, the federal fleet would be fully converted by 2011.
  3. Bus Fleet Conversion Act: A few municipal mass transit agencies and school districts are converting their bus fleets from those that burn gasoline and petroleum diesel to those that burn compressed natural gas. A handful are looking at converting to biodiesel, fuel made from vegetable oils, or buying hybrid electrics. Using incentives for manufacturers and end users, the act will mandate conversion of the nation's bus fleets to natural gas, electric, hybrid-electric or biodiesel over a period of 10 years.
  4. Energy Research Act : Add 5 cents to the federal gasoline tax each year over the next 25 years, with the revenue set aside to cover the cost of research and development into renewable energy, and to provide rebates for low-income Americans hurt most by rising gasoline prices by amending the Earned Income Tax Credit. If such a tax had been added to gasoline when it was first proposed in 1980, it would now provide $80 billion annually to the U.S. Treasury, and America would have gone far toward energy independence.
  5. Coal Liquefaction Demonstration Project Act: Montana Governor Brian Schweitzer has given fresh attention to an old technology that turns coal into liquid fuel that, if produced in large enough quantities, could reduce the need to import so much petroleum, one of Reenergize America's key goals. A massive investment in coal-to-liquids could theoretically fuel tens of millions of America's vehicles until a better technology comes along. However, there are serious questions at every step of the way, from extraction to exhaust pipe. The modernized Fischer-Tropsch technique that Schweitzer and others have proposed as the method to convert America's abundant coal reserves into synthetic fuels needs a full-scale test. The act will set the parameters for a public-private partnership to build and operate two coal-to-liquid plants using state-of-art "scrubbers," carbon dioxide sequestration and other strict environmental controls.
  6. Amtrak Restoration and Demonstration Project Act: American passenger rail service could be spurred into a rebound if a single modification were made: speed.  Reenergize America proposes a federal-state-private partnership to build, equip and operate two new high-speed rail lines using existing technology, such as Japan's bullet trains or Germany's Inter City Express trains. One system would be built in the Northeast, say, New York City to Washington, and one in the South or Far West, say, Houston to Orlando, or Los Angeles to San Francisco.
  7. Telecommuting Assistance Act: Establish a tax credit for those companies that use telecommuting to reduce employee travel. The maximum credit will be set at $2000 per year for a full-time employee who telecommutes five days a week. This will be pro-rated on a $400-a-day basis for employees averaging fewer than five days a week telecommuting. To receive the credit, companies must agree not to outsource the credited position to an overseas firm. In addition, the act will impose a return to older, more relaxed IRS rules to allow telecommuting workers to claim a portion of their house as an office for tax purposes.

Electricity

Our goal to generate 20% of America's electricity by 2020 with renewable sources is an ambitious one. Denmark, which began developing a strong preference for renewable energy sources in the early 1980s, plans to obtain 35% of its energy from renewables by 2030. With a federal commitment to a mix of incentives and penalties, plus funding for research, development and commercialization, the United States can achieve our goal. Indeed, approached properly, the United States can, like Denmark today, become an exporter of renewable energy technologies. Reenergize America proposes:

  1. Federal Renewable Power Act: A variety of renewable energy techniques have come a long way in the past three decades, particularly wind turbines and photovoltaics. These still only provide a tiny fraction of America's (and the world's) electricity. To reach Reenergize America's goal of generating 20% of our electricity with renewables by 2020, the act proposes:

           - Five Million Solar Roofs Initiative. Originally proposed as the One Million Solar Roofs Initiative by the Solar Energy Industries Association in 1997, and endorsed by President Clinton, a similar government-subsidized proposal offered by California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger ran into trouble over union pay scales for installation.

    Our plan would put five million electricity-generating systems on American homes between now and 2012 by tripling the current tax credit of $2000 for residential solar installations and extending the existing tax credit program beyond its 2007 cut-off date. Our program would add 15,000 megawatts of solar electricity, more than 15 times the currently installed amount of such power worldwide, and equal to the power provided by 50 typical coal-fired plants.

           - Extend the wind energy production tax credit from 2007 to 2015. It's estimated that the United States will have 15,000 megawatts of installed wind power capacity by 2009. An enhanced production tax credit could raise that figure in the short run and vastly expand it after 2009 by giving wind farm entrepreneurs a stable and predictable market.

  2. Renewable Energy Research & Development Act: As has been true for years, current federal allocations for research and development of renewable energy are a pale shadow of what they were in President Carter's final budget in fiscal 1981. When adjusted for inflation, today's budget for renewables R&D comes in at a fourth of what Carter's was, and, at $354 million, is less than what it costs to continue the war in Iraq for two days. Our plan would gradually increase this budget between now and 2010 to $3 billion annually, greatly expanding the activities of agencies like the National Renewable Energy Laboratory.
  3. Renewable Portfolio Standards Act: Nineteen states already mandate that small amounts of retail electricity sold within their borders come from renewables, and other states are considering similar requirements. With milestones set at 5, 10 and 15 years, and assisted by tradable, inflation-indexed production tax credits, this act will require all but the smallest utilities to generate 15% of their electricity from renewable energy sources by 2020. Companies that generate power from qualifying renewable facilities will be issued credits that they can hold for their own use or sell to others. Tradable credits will allow companies and entrepreneurs to invest in the most beneficial solutions to develop renewable energy sources under market mechanisms. Reenergize America calls not for 15% but rather 20% of the nation's total electricity generation to come from renewables by 2020. We anticipate that the extra 5% not generated by utilities under the RPS Act will come from residential and business installations which provide some or all of their own power.
  4. Federal Alternative Energy Demonstration Act: By means of venture capital and a federal grant program, this act would promote the construction of one major, experimental alternative power project in each state of the Union. Americans need to see alternative energy as viable. Highly visible projects can help build confidence, test new technologies (and spread understanding of existing ones). These could include wind, solar, biomass, biofuel, ocean thermal, geothermal, hydroelectric dam turbine upgrades and other projects that include features which have not yet been tested in a full-scale model and that take advantage of unique geographical or other aspects of each state.  
  5. National Conservation & Efficiency Act: Over the past 25 years, conservation has gotten a bad reputation among many Americans because people have believed, as Ronald Reagan once said, that they will "freeze to death in the dark." But  conservation doesn't require physical discomfort or giving up modern conveniences. In fact, conservation saves Americans more than 25% of the electricity it was predicted 30 years ago we would be consuming today. Moreover, conservation and greater efficiency are the cheapest sources of energy. Amory and Hunter Lovins have called this source negawatts. The act includes:

           - Develop an energy education curriculum for elementary and secondary schools. Conservation is like sex education - every generation needs it.

           - Fund SUN centers in every state. Under Jimmy Carter's energy department, four regional SUN centers were established nationwide to provide outreach to consumers eager to learn how to be more efficient in their energy consumption:  everything from the simplest - like weatherization and shopping for energy-saving appliances; to the complex - like designing a house in such a way as to take advantage of natural lighting and heating by the sun. Currently, the federal government funds six regional energy efficiency centers, but Republicans recently proposed eliminating them altogether.

          - Launch an independent federal review of appliance efficiency with an eye toward boosting standards when the technology is available to make that realistic.

          - Require all new federal buildings, as well as state and local government buildings constructed with federal assistance to be designed and built with the highest level of energy efficiency in mind, including being as nearly self-sufficient in energy production as technologically possible on the date the design for each such building is approved. Currently, the federal government operates under the Energy Savings Performance Contract, which allows private contractors to help Federal agencies improve the energy efficiency of their facilities. This should be made mandatory.

  6. Home Improvement Credit Act: Home-owners and rental-property landlords who upgrade their dwellings according to a standard, geographically-adjusted conservation-and-efficiency formula will receive tax credits up to 50% of the cost of the upgrade. New or old homes purchased with FHA or FmHA loans will be required to meet conservation standards.
  7. The Standard Nuclear Power and Demonstration Project Act: In partnership with industry, mandate the siting, design and construction of a full-scale "intrinsically safe" nuclear power facility to test its suitability as a pioneer for a new generation of nuclear plants. If the test plant proves itself, and radioactive waste disposal problems are resolved, the act would spur the expansion of nuclear power by allowing the construction of additional plants that conform to a standard, intrinsically safe design. All such plants would require that  uniform planning, site evaluation, construction, disposal and operations are carried out to ensure environmental, worker and general public safety.

Environment

  1. Clean Generation Act: Coal is cheap and extraordinarily abundant. At present, coal generates about half of America's electricity and dozens of new plants are being built across the country. For the next half-century, coal-burning power plants are likely to be included in the mix. Therefore, it is essential that we improve every aspect of our use of coal. The act would:

          - Outlaw mountain top removal that is denuding mountains and choking streams across Appalachia. Limit surface mining to areas where "return to contour" is the rule and ban all dumping of spoil into waterways.

          - Stop serial offenders by steeply increasing fines on failures to protect the environment. A company as incompetent as this one should not be given another chance. Much less chance, after chance, after chance.

          - Repeal "Clear Skies" and return to Clean Air Act provisions. Coal-burning plants should no longer be allowed to expand under regulations that allow them to pollute the way they did 25 years ago. The act sets 2020 as the deadline for bringing all coal-burning plants into full compliance.  

          - Regulate carbon dioxide as a pollutant. Just as the Clean Air Act imposes a  gradually more stringent series of guidelines on other pollutants, Reenergize America's Clean Generation Act does the same with carbon dioxide. By 2020, all new plants should be operating at 20% reduced CO2 levels. By 2040, we should require that total production of CO2 be cut in half through both scrubbing and sequestration.

           - Revise pollutant certificate trading. In many ways, this has worked well.  Producers who invest in technology that puts them ahead of government requirements get a payback by selling the "right to pollute" to less advanced producers. However, these certificates should be regional, not nationwide, to prevent a large "pollution bullseye" in the Midwest and resultant spread of these pollutants along a corridor of the east. Add CO2 certificates (which are already traded on a voluntary basis) to the mix.

           - To ensure that transforming coal into synthetic fuels represents an actual improvement in CO2 production over burning petroleum products, all Fischer-Tropsch plants should be required to use sequestration or scrubbing from the outset.

  2. Federal Energy Policy Enforcement Act: Good energy policy requires reliable, fair and consistent application and enforcement of rules. Specialized agencies like the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, the Environmental Protection Agency, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and the Securities and Exchange Commission can do their job only if they have the proper support, political and material. This legislation will increase the agencies' capacity to detect and react to fraud and compliance failures, heighten their ability to punish scofflaws, and ensure non-partisanship by proposing new rules for the nomination of their top officers.
  3. Hydrocarbon Tax Act: Leading experts believe that average temperatures across the world will climb by several degrees over the coming century. Icecaps and glaciers are already melting, sea levels are rising, and extreme weather events are occurring more frequently. Some portion of this change comes from burning hydrocarbons and producing carbon dioxide. Moreover, burning hydrocarbons causes health problems for many people. By themselves, the potential economic costs of these health effects and a changing climate run into the trillions of dollars. Over several years, the act would phase in a tax proportional to the carbon content of commercial fuels.  
  4. The United States Should Reengage the World Community on Global Climate Change: Although the Kyoto Protocol to deal with global climate change is deeply flawed, America must rejoin international efforts to find remedies for the ill effects of climate change.

Energy policy is a process, not a product

One hundred days and 17 pieces of legislation will not by themselves make the country energy independent. Energy policy is a process, not a product. Adopting Reenergize America will take us to a transition, not a destination.

Five years from now, certainly 15 years from now, we will see astonishing breakthroughs in technology. One of these, perhaps more than one, may make some of our legislative energy proposals obsolete or shorten the timetable we've set for reaching Reenergize America's triplet of 20% goals. Delightful, if it happens.

But we can't wait for the possibility that somebody will invent perpetual-motion juice and rescue us from our own recklessness at the last moment. When not speeding along in the wrong direction, we have spent decades waiting our leaders to craft a good energy policy. Consumers have spent and will spend hundreds of billions of dollars they might have saved if such an energy policy had been in place. We can't afford more delays.

Technology isn't everything. A truly energy-independent America will require a comprehensive rebuilding of our transportation and electricity-generating infrastructure. It will mean remaking our cities, especially what Joel Garreau calls "edge cities," whose very existence is one of the major reasons for our energy predicament. Energy independence will require changing land-use regulations, a highly contentious subject under the best of circumstances. And it will require modifying our lifestyles, the mere mention of which can set off political explosions. These discussions cannot be avoided.

Editorial Notes: See original for a poll and more than 100 comments. A well-thought-out energy platform, much of which could appeal to non-Democrats. As one commenter said, "Even as a Conservative I could get behind I think every one of these programs." Jerome a Paris wrote two previous posts on the subject in September: A Proposal for a Serious Energy Policy (Sept 12) and Building together an effecive Dem energy policy (Sept 30). The liberal Democrat blog, Daily Kos, seems to teem with posts on energy policy. If you ask for the posts tagged with "Energy", you find items like:
Joe Lieberman's Radical Energy Plan Analyzed
Countdown to 100$ oil (14) - Greenspan acknowledges peak oil
For Gov. Schweitzer - Syn Fuels and Sinful Fuels
-BA

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