Let American ingenuity solve the power crunch

Posted: Monday, February 11, 2008

Maryland's Allegheny Energy recently mailed two compact fluorescent light bulbs to each of its customers. Imagine the indignation when those customers noticed a $12 charge for the unsolicited mailing.

Despite promises that the bulbs would save money, help the environment and prevent blackouts, Allegheny's customers were peeved. They wrote letters to editors and lit fires under local politicians. Allegheny relented and agreed to pay for the bulbs.

This incident raises an important question. Why was a power company compelled to pull a stunt that predictably raised the ire of their customers?

Because utilities are faced with a serious problem. Electricity demand is projected to increase by 40 percent by 2030 according to government estimates. Meanwhile, overzealous regulators make it difficult to expand energy capacity. So power companies are left with few options - even fewer now that mailing light bulbs is a proven failure.

Unfortunately, instead of loosening regulations to induce capacity expansion, state and federal governments are moving toward rationing electricity. Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley, for example, wants to mandate electricity consumption reductions by 15 percent by 2015 (based on 2007 usage rates) and force state utilities to produce 20 percent of their energy from solar, wind and other renewable fuels by 2022.

Some may say, all of this sounds fair enough. What's wrong with some aggressive conservation? Well, there's a lot wrong when it's unjustifiably forced upon consumers.

Think about it. The legitimacy of these draconian efforts is rooted in the notion that there is an energy shortage. Conservation, after all, makes sense when there is a shortage of something.

But energy is not in short supply. There are fossil fuels, and lots of them, right here in America. Yet America is one of the few nations that chooses to leave much of its own reserves untapped.

Yes, wind and solar power are options. But the technology hasn't advanced yet to the point where these are affordable enough or reliable enough to satisfy our growing energy demands.

Then there's nuclear power. It is emissions-free, affordable, proven and safe. It already provides the U.S. with 20 percent of its electricity.

It can be used and recycled again and again, making it essentially limitless.

Nuclear power has the added benefit of solving many of the problems used to justify faulty conservation plans and energy mandates that are centrally planned. It's abundant, environmentally friendly, CO2-free and domestically produced. Yet officials continue to ignore its advantages.

If they're genuinely concerned about the threat of greenhouse gases or America's dependence on foreign energy, then they should seek ways to expand nuclear energy. A few simple policy changes would do it.

Licensing the Yucca Mountain repository, recycling spent fuel, assuring regulatory certainty, and protecting nuclear-power operators from over-zealous litigators would all facilitate the near-term construction of nuclear power plants.

Yet there are too few politicians clamoring to advance such an agenda.

While nuclear energy is coming back, it is not quite back yet. The old days of anti-nuclear fear mongering may be over, but we haven't fully recovered from 30 years of anti-nuclear propaganda.

The nation needs a brighter idea than light-bulbs in the mail. Officials should step aside and allow American ingenuity to finally solve our energy problems.

• Jack Spencer is a Research Fellow in Nuclear Energy and Nicolas Loris is a Research Assistant at The Heritage Foundation (heritage.org).

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