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The Big Spark

When will energy policy become a local issue?

In his new book, Nobel Prize-winning physicist Robert B. Laughlin says that the coming debate in energy will be between whether to generate our electricity with solar power, supplemented with natural gas, or with nuclear reactors. If we get electricity with solar (including wind, which ultimately comes from solar radiation), then much more of our power will have a local or regional source, and possibly a local or regional price, too.

Laughlin’s book, Powering the Future, was written just a few months ago, before a new study of the problems with natural gas was published—a study that warns that natural gas isn’t really a good substitute for other fossil fuels, because even before it’s burned, so much natural gas gets leaked into the atmosphere that by itself it’s a significant source of carbon dioxide pollution. Even more recently, another scientific study was released predicting that wind energy will be cost-competitive with natural gas by 2016, begging the question of why to go to the trouble of “fracking” at all if the whole point is to avoid putting more methane and CO2 into the amosphere. And in a just-published interview with a California electric utility CEO in a Yale University blog that tracks the economics of energy, this investor fiduciary who sells millions of customers power makes eye-opening predictions about how rapidly the utility industry expects electricity-generating solar panels to become big both inside and off the grid. Solar and wind will contribute as 40 percent of all home electricity needs within a very few years, says David Crane, president and CEO of NRG Energy. Millions of homes will be “off-the-grid” with rooftop solar panels within a decade. The biggest opportunity for his industry, he thinks, will come with selling renewable energy to people driving electric cars.

This is all happening very rapidly. Laughlin’s 120-page meditation (followed by 90 pages of footnotes) reads like an instruction manual for a world that is changing so fast that he was worried we weren’t quite noticing. Laughlin tries to calm everybody down. He doesn’t question whether human-produced CO2 emissions are causing great trouble to the planet: He just takes it as a given that we are going to have to figure out a post-carbon energy economy. Laughlin further calms the reader by reminding us about the difference between geologic time and human time. Overall, his book is a sober, smart, surprisingly easy-to-digest presentation that should become required reading for every member of Congress, because it’s about the absolute inevitability of our change away from an oil-based world to a new economy with new energy sources.

But, shockingly, we do not live in the fantasy universe where leaders are chosen based on their commitment to the public good. Sadly, with the notable exception of Bernie Sanders of Vermont, most of our senators and representatives win office based on their wolverine-like rapaciousness in advancing the interests of real-estate developers, bankers, oil companies, and other profiteers who cannot yet see their own interests being served by green energy, and so stick with the stuff that is wrecking our world.

Lifting one’s eyes from the page and returning to the political trends of off-year 2011, in which pro-government Democrats did well, one wonders: Will the policy-shaping that a scientist like Laughlin just assumes will happen in government be allowed to happen? Will a reclaimed role for public, collective policy-making persist through the 2012 presidential election year?

It seems so today. As national polling firm Anzalone-Liszt Research notes in recent reports, most of the surveys indicate that about the same 70 percent or more of American voters who agree that the highest-income individuals should pay more in taxes also agree that human-caused climate change is an important public-policy issue for Congress and the White House to address. It is impossible to find any Obama voters who disagree that anthropogenic climate-change needs urgent federal attention.

But at the state and local level, where major policy changes get implemented, what can the sentiments of 2011 mean? County executives and county legislators do not have the power to change federal or state income tax policy. They don’t have any power to force or assist coal-fired power plants to become reborn as wind-turbine or solar-panel farms. County governments are typically the level of government that coordinate public health and public safety issues for regions. They do soil testing, water testing, and sewerage-management, and, even in Erie County, where the outgoing executive vetoed a county planning process eight years in the making, there is some regional land-use planning, or at least thinking. Counties are even involved to some extent in administering federal and state programs that concern energy efficiency. But if there is an urgent issue of energy economics, local government—at the village, town, city, county and school district level—is not the first place to look for action.

Maybe that needs to change.

Leading from home

All those Ivy-degreed kids who work for the Obama administration are like the Ivy-degreed kids who worked for the Clinton administration: As then, they revere local initiatives. Local initiatives have the benefit of being field-tested for policy promoters whose careers are brighter if they can move an initiative up the chain of command from the Cabinet to the White House. Those who strike the mother-lode, and actually get a mention of a functioning, photogenic local initiative by POTUS himself, have a huge, Billy Fucillo huge, future on the righteous side of K Street, where the Washington lobbying industry lives.

Here at home, we have plenty of opportunities for career-advancing initiatives for local elected officials and White House aides, too. We have brownfields that can be cleaned up and made useable once again, and a good community engagement process already underway. We have a not-for-profit organization, Buffalo Niagara Riverkeeper, working with the Army Corps of Engineers on the Corps’s project of sucking some of the toxic sediments out of the Buffalo River. The Buffalo Sewer Authority’s leadership has embraced the notion of green infrastructure to deal with the annual tragedy of four billion gallons of untreated sewage flushing into the Niagara River along with our stormwater runoff. Cleaning up dirty water is a PR winner in Washington: Governing magazine, which is all about local government practices, named Onondaga County Executive Joan Mahoney public servant of the year for her regional, Onondaga County-City of Syracuse cooperation initiatives, principal among which is her green wastewater project.

It’s hard to think of better public-policy work for a newly elected Democrat than projects with green footprints that make heads in Washington turn and independent voters smile. Only government can run such projects; it takes both a practical and a philosophical commitment to collective action for the public’s benefit to get environmental cleanups actually accomplished.

But there’s much more difficult work to be done, too—the work of getting to a post-carbon energy system, as Laughlin describes. And that work is underway now.

Our country is returning to $100-a-barrel oil. The literature on what even the skeptics call “peak” oil is very large and getting tougher for even the oil industry to ignore. World production of this essential commodity has or will soon reach a plateau and then trend downward even as demand ratchets relentlessly upward, which means that the places that produce petroleum will be in better shape than the places that do not, but that global arrangements—including transoceanic shipping of everything we buy at Wal-Mart, and transcontinental shipping of much of we buy at the grocery store—may change rather abruptly.

If that happens, will our local farms have output to meet demand? Will the wheels of commerce in a place like the Buffalo-Niagara metro are still turn? One asks because one expects that before the oil runs low, it will get more expensive. It’s getting expensive again even as the new technologies for electrical power-generation are getting lighter and cheaper and more reliable, but before they come on line.

The new economic challenges that local leadership will have to face will be highly localized, and local governments are ill equipped to think these challenges through themselves—because local governments, like counties, even when they are led by pro-government Democrats who understand issues like stewardship of public lands and planning for public services, have to cope with immediate, currently overwhelming demands in areas like child protection, indigent healthcare, Food Stamps, and home heating assistance. Fundamental economic issues, like the energy that a regional economy depends upon, are for state and federal officials to deal with.

But every region of the United States is going to have to work on this issue for itself. Energy intersects with every policy, most especially with how we use land. It’s when we think about land and energy in the same sentence that one connects the dots: We have widely dispersed patterns of settlement not because there is a free market in real estate, but because oil is plentiful and cheap, which has helped empower the folks who like to keep the real-estate marketplace divided rather than regionalized. Why? Because if there’s no real cost to driving an extra mile or two to a new jurisdiction with a slightly better deal than the one you’re in—even though you’re in the same regional economy—then somebody is going to make sure that they can always offer you a better deal only a mile or two away. Today, as for the past 60 years or so, there is no real cost to you to driving that extra mile.

That’s why high-minded planners and policy wonks have failed, especially in the Rust Belt, to defeat the lobbyists for the real-estate industry, who do not want to talk about regional land-use planning, or land-banking, or energy efficiency. Developers who live off the current system of low-cost, abundant, no-incremental-cost energy fund both political parties at the local level. Developers in Western New York are particularly influential: They were Dennis Gorski’s biggest financial backers, Joel Giambra’s biggest financial backers, and now, a real-estate developer is Mark Poloncarz’s transition team leader. The real estate industry in the Great Lakes mega-region has been at the forefront of keeping land-use planning decisions highly localized, by maintaining the politics of multiple jurisdictions within sprawling, depopulating Great Lakes regions like ours. The suburban office-park developers, and the suburban cul-de-sac homebuilders, have been allied with highway-constructing state-level engineers for decades, and they have all presumed endless supplies of cheap energy—which is now not cheap. And not only is it no longer cheap, its effluent—CO2—is wreaking havoc with the climate.

Breaking the Eisenhower paradigm

Every newly elected 2011 Democrat, whose success came about because of voter angst over the hijacking of government to serve the one percent rather than the entirety, is stuck with the fact that he or she owes a real estate developer or two for the biggest pieces of his or her fundraising—and that that real estate developer needs for the current Eisenhower paradigm to persist. Infrastructure decisions made since Eisenhower was president have been utterly consistent, as if the America of the 1950s—the car-focused, suburbanizing, anti-urban, racially segregated, income-sorted landscape—has all the supplies of cheap energy inputs it will ever need endlessly available.

The benefit of cuddling up with a book like Laughlin’s Powering the Future is precisely that an unimpeachable authority, in the person of this Nobel Prize-winning author, has a message for that policy-maker who owes so much to the current paradigm. Look, says Laughlin: We’re a clever species, we can figure this out, but there are a few rules we all have to live by, such as the laws of physics. Those rules or laws are surprisingly simple, and they all point to alternatives to carbon-based fuels like $100-a-barrel oil, alternatives like wind farms, solar panels, and, for the time being, natural gas—but all those alternatives mean that we’re going to have to live somewhat differently than we’re used to. If we’re going to be moving to driving cars like the Nissan Leaf, for example, which can go 75 miles before it needs half a day of charging, then we’ve got major behavioral changes ahead—like much shorter commutes.

That’s why the decisions are going to come down to states and counties, much moreso than to towns and villages. Big cities have a big role, too, because they tend to dominate the story in most media markets. But when it comes to framing a regional energy policy, which means regional transportation and regional land-use, counties are going to be either dragged into a coordinating role by states and the federal government, or they are going to leap up and take the lead, because counties in America are as close as we get to having a level of government that is roughly equal to the dimensions of economic regions. Counties are already regional social-service districts. Counties are regional coordinators for emergency preparedness, and for public safety functions like E-911, investigative labs, and training. Because of events far away, events that will challenge the existing political paradigm that empowers everybody who relies on centralized sources of abundant energy for cars, counties are going to get into energy policy, too.

Bruce Fisher is former deputy executive for Erie County and currently visiting professor of economics and finance at Buffalo State College, where he directs the Center for Economic and Policy Studies.

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