An Apollo Program for Climate Change

By David Sokol
Friday, June 22, 2007

In May 1961, President John F. Kennedy committed the nation, by the end of that decade, to landing Americans on the moon and bringing them safely back to Earth. Kennedy identified specific interim goals, such as developing a lunar spacecraft, new rocket booster technologies, and the deployment of satellite communication and weather observation systems.

In asking Congress to support his goal, he said that the effort "will last for many years and carry very heavy costs" and that it demanded "a major national commitment of scientific and technical manpower."

Today, many political leaders say that climate change is the defining challenge of our generation. Unfortunately, they fail to provide Kennedy's understanding of what is required, much less the resources and leadership, to succeed.

The race in Congress and several states to adopt aggressive cap-and-trade emissions-reduction mandates is disconnected from the reality of our country's electricity supply and the state of technology for reducing carbon dioxide emissions.

More than 50 percent of our nation's electricity is derived from coal, and 20 percent comes from nuclear power. Natural gas generates roughly 17 percent of our electricity; hydropower, 7 percent; non-hydro renewables, 1.6 percent; and small fossil fuel units the remainder.

Each of these fuel sources possesses environmental and economic strengths and weaknesses. Coal has held a dominant role because it is abundantly available domestically, it's cheap, the price is relatively stable, and it is ideally suited to constant power generation.

The problem is that coal creates large amounts of carbon dioxide when it's burned. The industry has reduced other emissions, including sulfur dioxide and nitrous oxide. But we don't have readily available technologies to remove carbon dioxide.

Yet shutting down U.S. coal plants is unthinkable in the near term and would have devastating consequences for the reliability and cost of our electric grid. As it is, electricity demand grows about 1.7 percent annually, and new supply significantly lags this growth.

Renewable energy, such as wind power, is experiencing huge growth, and energy-efficiency measures are helping to slow demand. But these initiatives cannot come close to offsetting our reliance on coal.

Placing caps on carbon emissions before the technology is available to actually reduce those emissions will simply impose a tax on the American people without any positive environmental benefits. There has to be a better way.

What's needed is a joint effort from the power sector, customers and the environmental community to push Congress and the Bush administration to live up to their rhetoric on clean coal, renewables, new nuclear power and efficiency programs.

Federal research and development funding for energy has declined 85 percent since the early 1980s, and efforts to fund the initiatives authorized in the 2005 Energy Policy Act have been sporadic at best. The $7 billion to $9 billion that President Kennedy sought for the space program in 1961 would be the equivalent of $46 billion to $60 billion today. By contrast, the Energy Department's annual civilian R&D budget is barely $2 billion.

The first priority for any program to reduce carbon is establishing a long-term, public-private funding partnership to research, develop and deploy emissions-reduction technologies into the market.

This effort could be financed through a small fee (one-twentieth of a cent) applied to every kilowatt of energy sold in the United States. Combined with matching federal funds, this could provide about $4 billion annually -- enough, experts believe, to develop the technology to reduce emissions 25 percent below 2000 levels by the year 2030, with dramatic reductions thereafter.

Besides finding new ways to reduce carbon dioxide emissions, we need to do research to achieve breakthroughs in renewable energy, nuclear technologies and reductions in demand, as well as improvements in high-voltage transmission systems and the retrofitting of existing fossil-fuel plants. Achieving a future of low carbon emissions is not a matter of choosing one technology over another. All must play a role.

Rather than simply passing emissions caps and hoping for the best, Congress should develop a comprehensive package of technology investment, renewable energy and energy efficiency mandates, tax incentives, and policy changes to reduce carbon emissions in the near and long term.

It is possible to create an economically sustainable low-carbon future by investing in technology now and deploying these technologies worldwide.

We need to start today, with the Kennedyesque goal of making the transition from 250 years of carbon-intensive growth to a low-carbon future in the next 25 years.

That's an ambitious but achievable goal that all Americans should be able to support.

The writer is chairman and chief executive of MidAmerican Energy Holdings Co. MidAmerican is 85 percent-owned by Berkshire Hathaway, whose chairman, Warren E. Buffett, is on the Washington Post Co.'s board of directors.

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