Jun 17 2007

Watch energy debate

Birmingham News

The renewable energy proposal up for debate in the U.S. Senate offers a good opportunity for sensible policy-making. Let's hope the senators are up to the task.

The goal is a worthy one: to lessen our dependence on fossil fuels by increasing the use of cleaner, renewable sources of power. The challenge is to achieve that goal in a way which is honest about the costs and fair in the allocation of those costs.

Meeting that challenge will require an open and intelligent discussion of both benefits and costs. In an era when government has been too timid to talk of any sacrifice in the pursuit of our national goals, such a frank discussion would be welcome.

When we look only at the benefits, we get nightmares like the Jefferson County sewer system, where the manifest need to fix an aging sewer system produced an unchecked orgy of spending and corruption.

When we talk only of the cost, we get nightmares like the Birmingham transit system, where the unwillingness to invest has meant we do not provide solutions for our citizens who need transportation or relief for our clogged roadways.
 
In the renewable energy debate, Alabama's two senators are among those pushing to explore the cost as well as the benefit of requiring more use of renewable energy sources. That concern should not stop us from moving toward less reliance on fossil fuels, but it should inform the way we make that move.

The first step is to recognize there is no progress without cost. A mandate on industry is, in effect, a tax on consumers. "They don't call it a tax, but that's what it is," said Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Ala. Are we willing to pay the price for renewable energy? The Edison Electric Institute has said that cost in Alabama could be $7.9 billion over 23 years.

We may decide the improvement in our energy mix is worth the price, but we have to be ready to explain that choice to the poor widow struggling to pay her light bill.

Another issue the senators raise is the distribution of the cost. States such as New Mexico, home of this plan's sponsor, may have plenty of sun and wind to meet the proposed requirements. Alabama, which has less potential in those areas and would not be allowed to count the hydropower that is already being produced, probably would be forced to buy credits and pass the cost to consumers.
 
The fairness issue is a complex one. States that do not have to put up with wind farms or give up huge expanses of land for solar panels should not get a free ride on the backs of states that do. Neither should the residents of states such as Alabama be punished because our natural gifts do not fit the pattern of this legislation.

The U.S. Senate bills itself as the greatest deliberative body in the world. As such, it should be able to balance the competing interests in this debate and devise a fair and reasonable plan for a clean, reliable energy mix in electric power generation.

The proposal requiring utility companies to get 15 percent of their power from renewable sources is just one piece of the larger energy puzzle. Our country is going to have to make a series of tough decisions about where we get our energy and how much we are willing to pay for independence and environmental improvements.

If we can get this piece right, it could set us on the path for other progress, as well. We should watch this debate, and judge our Senate on its results.