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Energy: When the Answer is Always No

by Scott Bittle

Friday, March 18th, 2011

It’s still touch-and-go today whether Japanese engineers will be able to control the crisis threatening four nuclear reactors, the worst nuclear accident since Chernobyl. The courage of the plant technicians and helicopter crews trying to contain the accident in the face of life-threatening radiation levels makes much of the debate seem small by comparison.

Yet the debate over nuclear safety and our energy options has been reopened – very understandably, even if the lessons of Fukushima Daiichi aren’t clear yet.

One key thing about our energy policy is clear, however: as a nation, we’re much better at saying “no” than saying “yes.” In many respects, the United States seems to be waiting for an easy answer, when the truth is that all forms of energy have risks and trade-offs.

Thanks to the BP spill, the answer may be no to more offshore drilling. The Japanese nuclear crisis may mean we say no to more nuclear power. Residents often object to all kinds of energy projects, whether they’re power plants, wind farms or transmission lines. A cap-and-trade system, which would encourage renewable energy like wind and solar, is off the table in Congress.

But we cannot solve our energy problems without saying “yes” to something. Global demand for energy is expected to increase 40 percent over the next two decades, even as the world tries to avoid permanent climate change. We need both more energy and cleaner energy, and we need to start making choices about how we’re going to get them. Perhaps the most damning projection of all is the Energy Department’s estimate that we get 80 percent of our energy from fossil fuels – and in 25 years we’ll still be getting 80 percent of our energy from fossil fuels, unless things change.

We need to engage the public with what our energy options actually are. Every form of energy has drawbacks, and every option has tradeoffs – some of which the public may want to make, and some they won’t. This is an issue that calls for public choicework —the process of having citizens weigh the pros and cons of different approaches with the acknowledgement that there is no perfect, cost-free solution. Without that, we’ll just keep saying no, until it’s too late to say yes to anything.



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