A Regional Approach to Cleaner Energy

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By David Crane
Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Energy plans, like health-care plans, tend to be complex. These days they are particularly complicated because any modern energy plan needs to dovetail with real solutions to climate change, perhaps the single most urgent socio-environmental issue mankind has ever confronted. With regard to timing, energy plans must differentiate between what we can realistically do in the next five to 10 years and what we can hope to achieve by 2030 to 2050.

Simply put, most Americans want access to reliable, affordable and increasingly sustainable power. Yes, we're all worried about national security. We're also concerned that the burden and benefit of a new energy plan be shared equitably among the various regions of our country. But consumers are tired of promises for the distant future. We don't want to try to plumb more than a thousand pages of strategy to discern what the goal might be for tomorrow. We want a comprehensible plan for the here and now.

In recent years there has been a tectonic shift in our energy usage as our country trends away from fossil fuels in favor of "natural" energy, such as wind and solar. If we are to focus on these types of God-given energy sources, we need to go to our energy rather than have our energy come to us, as we do with fossil fuels.

A progressive, pragmatic energy plan would focus on taking the first steps toward national energy sustainability. It would start with technologies that are ready for large-scale deployment but are concentrated on regions where they can be demonstrated and deployed at scale to their best advantage. Consider what could happen if we focused on these five goals:

-- The West gets the sun. Al Gore's vision of a Sonora Desert covered in a 90-square-mile sea of solar thermal mirrors powering the entire country is admirably visionary, but transmission constraints would make this more practical, at least in the near term, at the regional level. So let's set aside an area and get started. California provides sufficient scale; its peak electricity demand is coincident with sunlight, and it is only 250 miles from the Sonora Desert into the heart of the Southern California population center.

-- The Midwest gets the wind. Wind is the predominant renewable in the United States today, but for it to be a major factor in the energy mix of the future we need to tap into the wind resources of the upper Great Plains states, which are currently stranded. To date, the focus has been on getting wind resources from places like southeastern Wyoming to California. Instead, let's take wind from the Dakotas and feed it into Chicago. It is 1,100 miles from Cheyenne, Wyo., to Los Angeles, but only 600 miles from South Dakota to Chicago.

-- The South gets nuclear. Democratic policymakers have focused like lasers on wind, solar and efficiency. They need to recognize that the South, still one of the nation's most economically dynamic growth areas, lacks suitable wind and solar resources. The geology of much of the Southeast is not well-suited to sequestering the carbon emissions that must be captured by truly "clean coal." On the other hand, the populace of the South (and that includes Texas) is generally comfortable with nuclear power, and its incumbent utilities are deeply experienced in nuclear operations. Nuclear energy should be the "renewable of the South."

-- The Northeast gets the electric car. The Northeast generally lacks good onshore wind and sun power options, as well as public acceptance for nuclear plants. So let's exploit its singular competitive advantage relative to the rest of the country -- the proximity of its population centers to each other. An electric car with a 250-mile range wouldn't make it from Los Angeles to San Francisco, but it would make it from New York to Boston. For real progress, we need to build an infrastructure for the electric car in a few parts of the country. Let the Northeast be a lead "test" region.

-- Pursue "clean coal" as a national priority. We must set as a national priority -- perhaps a "national project" -- the demonstration and large-scale deployment of "clean coal." All of the zero-carbon regional solutions described above, if forcefully implemented, could have a meaningful impact on U.S. carbon emissions, but only "clean coal" can actually capture the enormous carbon emissions from the new coal plants coming on line in China and India. It comes down to a mathematical certainty: We cannot solve global warming through clean coal alone; but without clean coal, we simply cannot solve global warming.

This regionally focused "here and now" energy plan would get us started quickly and on the right foot. What are we waiting for?

The writer is president and chief executive of NRG Energy, a Princeton, N.J.-based wholesale power producer that owns and operates numerous generation facilities, including wind and nuclear, and is developing solar power.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company

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