In his vision of an America transitioning away from fossil fuels, Jon Wellinghoff, the chairman of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, sees information technology as the basis for tremendous financial and employment opportunities. And with the right policies and incentives, this could happen soon. But in our current political reality, it feels like light years away.
Speaking on the future of American energy in the United States at Princeton recently, Wellinghoff got into the details of the technologies, many sitting on the shelf today, that could change individuals’ use of electricity and fuel — and would change some of how America does business for the better.
Wellinghoff talked about car batteries charged in garages that could help balance the electricity grid. The grid could temporarily draw electricity from these batteries to meet shortfalls in supply, saving money and pollution at the same time. Cars would be fully charged when owners need to hit the road, and there would be some extra cash from the juice they sold.
The technology exists to put this into action in the short-term, but the lack of government policy and financial incentives serves to scare off major investors.
There are real economic and job creation opportunities from the marriage of information technology and the need to update our energy system. Smart metering could help homeowners and businesses manage electricity consumption; new information intensive transmission systems could tap into the vast wind potential in the central United States; distributed generation could help cut down on transmission waste. But without the right political leadership to put enabling infrastructure in place, the potential of these projects remains locked up.
Getting investments in these kinds of game-changing technologies doesn’t necessarily require comprehensive climate legislation (though, of course, that would help). As has recently been discussed, cutting subsidies for fossil fuel and using the money to support efficiency or cleaner energy would be a good early step. So would stronger air quality regulations or a national renewable energy standard.
But sometimes it seems we are nowhere near where we need to be politically even for a smart but watered-down energy plan. The green agenda has been kicked back 30 years, with groups forced in to a defensive position to protect the Clean Air Act (and undergoing a big internal reassessment on strategy). Instead of incentivizing new ways to jump start some economic activity, the political discourse can’t even make room for established scientific findings on climate change or (absurdly) the direct health effects of air pollution.
Wellinghoff is not suggesting that the transition away from fossil fuels will be completely painless — those who deal in dirty power will feel the pinch. But in his view, a cleaner and smarter energy infrastructure is foundational to long-term economic growth and, in the medium-term, the massive project of updating our aging system will create a world of private sector opportunities.
So why are we focusing on the few likely losers of a move toward cleaner energy — the coal mines and dirty power plants that will have to shut down — and not the rest of us who will benefit? That’s a question we must now pose to our elected officials. Otherwise visions of the future like Wellinghoff’s will fall away from our grasp and become just an echo to remind us of how far we are from change.
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