CAMBRIDGE, Mass. – Three forces will fundamentally shape America’s energy future: climate change, national security, and global competition. A more effective national energy policy could better respond to these challenges by encouraging the adoption of new technologies and more realistic pricing models, according to contributors to the Spring 2012 issue of Dædalus, the Journal of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.
The essays document a multi-decade record of misdirected policy initiatives and a history of underpricing energy relative to its societal costs. In the short term, the authors suggest, focusing on local benefits and employing regulatory rather than pricing strategies may be the most productive approaches to building public support for cleaner energy.
In the new issue, titled “The Alternative Energy Future,” guest editors Robert W. Fri (Resources for the Future) and Stephen Ansolabehere (Harvard University) and ten other contributors examine initial steps the country could take toward achieving “the holy grail” of affordable, reliable, and clean energy. These include:
- Focusing public attention on the local, not global, environmental consequences of energy choices;
- Taking into account consumer attitudes and behaviors when introducing new technology;
- Narrowing the gap between proving new energy technologies in the laboratory and bringing them to commercial scale; and
- Fully communicating energy costs to the public, including the economic consequences of health and environmental impacts.
Two of the largest impediments to a successful national energy policy are political resistance to allowing energy prices to reflect their true, all-in costs and inadequate public understanding of the link between energy consumption and climate change, according to Fri and Ansolabehere.
“Physical science and engineering, essential to developing technology, are not the principal tools for addressing these problems,” Fri and Ansolabehere write in the introduction to the volume. “As underscored by a recent report from the American Academy (Beyond Technology), they are more the province of the social sciences, and greater attention should be given to incorporating social science research into energy-policy development.”
In “Paying Too Much for Energy? The True Costs of Our Energy Choices,” Michael Greenstone and Adam Looney draw from their Hamilton Project research to calculate that the “true social cost” of current energy consumption is nearly three times the amount that appears on utility bills. “These costs – ranging from increases in lung disease and infant mortality to problems associated with climate change – have been quantified and can be expressed in dollar terms,” they write. “Without access to full, transparent information about the true costs of energy sources, policy-makers have not had the tools to make the best choices for the economy and the welfare of the American people.”
Kassia Yanosek contends in “Policies for Financing the Energy Transition” that a transition to a low-carbon economy requires innovations and new technologies that can compete with conventional energy on cost and scale.
Getting consumers to pay the full price for energy consumption could, more than any other factor, propel the country toward a better energy future, argues Michael J. Graetz in “Energy Policy: Past or Prologue?”
Also in the volume:
Joseph Aldy and Robert Stavins (“Using the Market to Address Climate Change: Insights from Theory & Experience”) examine specific policy tools to price carbon that would align energy production prices with the full social costs of production – including the adverse impacts of greenhouse gas emissions on global climate change – to spur innovation, deployment, and the use of climate-friendly technologies.
Stephen Ansolabehere and David Konisky (“The American Public’s Energy Choice”) present new research on how the public perceives the need for change in the energy system.
Daniel P. Schrag (“Is Shale Gas Good for Climate Change?”) evaluates the role of the recent boom in natural gas in cutting greenhouse gas emissions.
Ernest Moniz (“Stimulating Energy Technology Innovation”) argues that energy technology innovation has lagged that in other domains, but novel approaches linking government, academia, and industry show promise for picking up the pace.
Mohamed El-Ashry (“National Policies to Promote Renewable Energy”) explores what countries are doing to build a world market for renewable energy technology.
Order print and Kindle copies of the Spring 2012 issue of Dædalus.
As a companion to this issue, the Winter 2013 issue of Dædalus will explore how societal responses to the coming transformation of the energy system could help or hinder the emergence of new technologies. The volume will discuss what social science research is needed to better understand these responses.
Founded in 1780, The American Academy is a nonpartisan policy research center and international learned society dedicated to intellectual leadership across the nation and around the world. Current Academy projects include initiatives for science, engineering, and technology; international security; the governance of American institutions; the state of humanities and culture; and challenges to American higher education.