June 1, 1995
Most Americans know there is something deeply irrational about US energy policy. Why doesn’t Congress? In its budget cutting fever, Congress is missing the elephants, and going after the mice. Why? Because as usual, politics is really about economics. And economics is really about power.
Proposed budget cuts for the Department of Energy, for example, take large bites (50%) out of Federal investment in energy efficiency and renewable energy sources, and mere nibbles out of subsidies for fossil fuels (coal, oil, natural gas) and nuclear power.
Yet, as this column has observed in recent months, energy efficiency represents an unusually lucrative investment–whether at the level of the individual firm or at the level of public policy. The cost of renewable energy technologies like wind and solar energy have continued to drop steadily, in part due to Federal support for research, and market development. Despite this, the bulk of taxpayer-funded energy spending has gone into the mature–and politically powerful–fossil fuel industry, and the perennial black hole of nuclear power. (Remember the promise of “power to cheap to meter”?)
This bias in Federal energy subsidies toward energy supply (as opposed to efficiency) and conventional energy sources (as opposed to new sources like wind and solar), is “poor energy policy,” according to the Washington, DC-based Alliance to Save Energy. “It may be appropriate to subsidize emerging energy resources, but mature resources should stand the test of the market.”
The Alliance found that 58 percent of US energy subsidies ($21 billion) went to fossil fuels in 1989, 30 percent ($11 billion) to nuclear, and 12 percent ($4 billion) to all renewable energy sources, including hydro, and energy efficiency. “In other words, the mature, conventional energy sources received almost 90 percent of all subsidies.”
In addition, the Alliance said, “this pattern… represents poor environmental policy because it encourages the use of polluting and environmentally risky energy sources.”
But it’s not just poor policy. It’s poor politics. By wide majorities, Americans favor making renewable energy and energy efficiency technologies the highest priorities for federal energy funding, according to a nationwide survey conducted for the Sustainable Energy Budget Coalition by Republican pollster Vincent Breglio.
As reported by Tom Gray in the igc:energy.news conference on the Internet, the poll found 64 percent of Americans believe that renewable energy sources should be the highest or second highest priority for continued federal research and development (R&D) funding. As with many of the questions in the poll, this support was true regardless of party affiliation: Republicans 60 percent, Democrats 66 percent, Independents 67 percent.
Energy efficiency and conservation technologies were rated as first or second highest priority by 49 percent of those surveyed, natural gas by 35 percent of respondents, nuclear power by 21 percent, and fossil fuels by 19 percent.
Nuclear power topped one list, though; 61 percent of respondents picked it as first or second for their highest priorities for cuts, and 59 percent selected fossil fuels, while 23 percent would cut funding for natural gas, 16 percent would reduce efficiency spending, and 16 percent chose renewables.
Even Republicans and Southerners, the two groups least favorable to renewables and efficiency, supporting the idea of reducing overall Department of Energy funding while shifting it away from fossil fuels and nuclear power toward renewables and efficiency by margins of better than three to one–Republicans by 71 percent to 23.5 percent, Southerners 71 percent to 19 percent. For the public as a whole a whopping 75 percent agreed and 18 percent disagreed.
Eighty-five percent of respondents favor federal partnerships with U.S. businesses “to promote sales of energy efficiency and renewable energy technologies.” Respondents favor the use of federal tax incentives to support renewable energy and energy efficiency, 74 percent to 21 percent–and oppose incentives for nuclear and fossil fuels, 51 percent to 42 percent.
“These opinion survey results demonstrate a simple, consistently documented fact,” said American Wind Energy Association Executive Director Randall Swisher. “The American people want renewable energy.”
Does Congress care what the American people want? Maybe. But Congress tends to care more about those they hear from more. And they “hear” more from Big Energy lobbyists than they hear from you, dear voter. After all, just a third of us voted in the 1994 elections.
Like any revolution, the “Republican revolution” is designed to be achieved by a well-organized minority while the majority lies silent. But a democracy works best when that majority makes itself heard. If you want to be heard on energy policy, it’s time you called Congress.
Operators are standing by.
For copies of “Federal Energy Subsidies: Energy, Environmental, and Fiscal Impacts,” contact the Alliance to Save Energy, 1725 K Street, NW, Suite 509, Washington, DC 20006-1401. Copies of the complete 39-page survey results, Energy: Post-Election Views, are available for $15 (payable to “Sun Day”) from the Sustainable Energy Budget Coalition, 315 Circle Avenue, Suite #2, Takoma Park, MD 20912-4836.