Special feature: The greening parties

by John M. Powers, online editor

First it was a school in Indonesia. Then it was a preacher. Then it was a lobbyist, pigs and lipstick, guns, field dressing a moose… the list, it’s long. We’ve all seen it play out in the news. As both presidential candidates and their running mates lives’ have the eye of television cameras and ears of reporters recorders trained on them around the clock, each misstep, badly chosen word, or something that a New York journalist just thinks is weird becomes the latest sensation.

But the issues? Pigs and lipstick don’t tell us much about how Sen. John McCain is going to rehab our economy after the masters of the universe went on a bad home loan jag. And Sen. Barack Obama’s middle name doesn’t tell us anything about his tax policies. Don’t worry. The truth is out there, as they say, and we went out to find it.

What follows is a roundup of the candidates’ stances on anything and everything “green,” gathered from their official positions on their Web sites. Whereas voters could consistently count on the Dems to have climate change or some such environmental cause as part of their platform, this election season has seen a somewhat new entrant (at least since the days of Teddy Roosevelt) to the green space in the GOP. And, in case you hadn’t noticed because you never hear anything about them on the news, we do have a few other candidates throwing their hats in the November ring. They are: Ralph Nader, an independent; Bob Barr for the Libertarian Party; Chuck Baldwin with the Constitution Party; and Cynthia McKinney for the Green Party. However, and it’s nothing against third parties, we’ll be focusing on Senators Barack Obama and John McCain.

So, let’s take a look at how the candidates propose we go green…

Renewable energy

Renewables, perhaps more than any other source of energy, seem to have the most political and legislative momentum. In the face of estimates of immense energy demand and not enough supply — especially clean supplies — renewable sources of energy are being looked at as part of the solution. Add to that worries about climate change, and you’ve got a great plank for your political platform. Here’s where they stand.

Sen. Barack Obama: Obama backs a renewable portfolio standard (RPS) for the country that would require 10 percent of our electricity come from sources like wind and solar by 2012. He also wants to extend the federal production tax credit (PTC) for another five years.

Sen. John McCain: Under his energy policy, named “The Lexington Project,” McCain wants to encourage the renewables market by cleaning up what he calls “the current patchwork of temporary tax credits” that encourage the development of renewables. He wants to standardize tax credits that will exist until “renewable energy no longer merits the taxpayers’ dollars.” He also intends to establish a tax credit for what companies spend on R&D in the green space.

Plug-in hybrid vehicles (PHEVs)

Paying Euro-style prices for gas is not setting well with the nation, which will only ramp up support behind PHEVs. There’s some kinks to work out, like better batteries, infrastructure to support the cars and getting them to a bearable price point just to name a few. Still, PHEVs are being looked at as a source of distributed generation, a place to store energy, a way to reduce emissions and a solution to our dependence on foreign oil. With greater acceptance of PHEVs, the utility industry will be impacted for better (distributed generation is good) and for worse (PHEVs have the potential of putting more strain on an already stretched grid). In any case, what do the candidates think of PHEVs?

Obama: Obama intends to use public and private funds to develop better battery technologies for automobiles. He hopes that such an R&D push will help automakers make PHEVs available to consumers. By 2015, Obama wants to put 1 million PHEVs on the road. As an incentive for adoption, he wants to give two tax credits, one for conservation and a $7,000 credit for “the purchase of advanced technology vehicles.” Another way he’ll get 1 million PHEVs on the road is by, if elected, converting the White House fleet to PHEVs and making half the cars purchased by the feds PHEVs by 2012.

McCain: McCain proposes a $300 million prize for the development of better batteries for PHEVs and fully electric cars. He wants the battery to be smaller than, have greater capacity than and be cheaper than the batteries found in available hybrid vehicles. Also, he wants to offer a $5,000 tax credit for consumers who buy zero-emissions cars, which he believes will encourage automakers to develop such cars to be first to the market “in order to capitalize on the consumer incentives.”

Clean coal

Scrubbing emissions? Grabbing greenhouse gas emissions before they hit the atmosphere and stuffing them down a deep hole? It still sounds strange, but many utilities see their best option, in terms of abundance and cost, for meeting the rising demand as coal. The game is changing and the emissions from coal plants will have a harder time just floating up into the sky untouched. Enter clean coal technologies — whether it be pre-combustion technologies, carbon sequestration, or integrated gasification combined-cycle (IGCC) plants — they’re a must for utilities. Here’s where the candidates stand.

Obama: Obama wants to commercialize clean coal technologies through incentives for “private sector investment in commercial scale zero-carbon coal facilities.” Obama says he will have the Department of Energy work with the private sector to develop five new commercial coal plants with carbon capture and sequestration capabilities.

McCain: McCain wants to “commit significant federal resources” to the development of clean coal. He intends to spend $2 billion a year to develop clean coal technologies. Once created, he intends to export the technology.

Energy efficiency

If there’s one thing we consistently hear from the utility industry, it’s that energy efficiency will play a big role in solving our energy problem. Even making small changes in behavior can change a consumer’s energy use picture. Given enough people on the efficiency bandwagon, such efforts can, in turn, change a utility’s energy picture. It’s not a new idea. The government encouraged energy efficiency in appliances with the Energy Star program in 1992, but if we intend to deal with the challenges facing us, the nation will have to apply efficiency to more than household appliances. Here’s where the candidates stand.

Obama: For the senator, energy efficiency is somewhat of a cornerstone of his energy policy, and his ideas will have a direct effect on utilities. First, Obama wants to handle the projected demand problem by promoting energy efficiency. Based on the efficiency goal he wants to implement, by 2020 he wants to reduce demand by 15 percent. “A portion of this goal would be met by setting annual demand reduction targets that utilities would need to meet,” says Obama’s Web site. The senator also wants to improve building efficiency, have efficiency standards for appliances and attempt to reduce the power consumed by the federal government. Obama also intends to “flip incentives” to utilities. Basically, his plan is to change the way utilities make their profits by “flipping the profit model for the utility sector so that shareholder profit is based on reliability and performance as opposed to total production.”

McCain: McCain wants to “green” the federal government by making new federal buildings follow a “higher efficiency standard.” He intends to retrofit existing federal buildings so they can get in on the efficiency game as well. In addition, he wants to deploy smart technologies to encourage citizens to be more efficient in their use of electricity. We’ll have more on that in the “smart grid” section below.

The smart grid

While there is no one solution to the energy challenges, the smart grid is viewed as a crucial component of meeting the challenges head on. Advanced metering infrastructure (AMI), advanced data collection for outage management, vigilant cyber security, demand response and more are all parts of the smart grid. Whoever the next president is, and probably the next few presidents after, will have to completely overhaul the nation’s aging grid, bringing to bear all of the innovation the industry can produce. So, where are the candidates on the smart grid?

Obama: Obama intends to establish what his campaign calls a “Grid Modernization Commission,” which he wants to use to ramp up the adoption of smart grid practices and technologies. If elected, he’ll also have some directions for his secretary of energy. First, to establish a matching grant program that would reimburse companies a quarter of what they spend on smart grid investments. Second, to deploy advanced metering, demand response, distributed generation and storage systems on “customer premises.” Third, he’ll have the secretary “establish demonstration projects specifically focused on advanced technologies for power grid sensing, communications, analysis and power flow control.” He would also like to see demand-side resources used.

McCain: To deal with the coming stresses on the grid, McCain wants to overhaul the existing grid. To do this, he wants to “reduce red tape” to allow companies to make investments in the grid — like building the infrastructure to support PHEVs. He also wants to deploy smart metering technologies which he says will encourage consumers to be more efficient in their use of energy.

Nuclear energy

When it comes to nuclear plants and coal plants, the difference in output is immense. You have to jump up to a whole other metric prefix — from megawatts (coal plants) to gigawatts (nuclear plants). Some studies suggest that the public is starting to warm to the idea of having nuke plants providing their power — history has shown they are safe, produce no emissions and their capacity factors are amazing. However, there’s that pesky nuclear waste to deal with, and the federal government has yet to provide a repository. Even with the unresolved and controversial waste issue, nuclear power is no doubt going to have to become part of the nation’s generation mix, simply because nuke plants (along with coal) can be counted on more than a whole host of renewables to meet the tsunami of demand the experts say is coming. So what do the candidates think of the new nuclear?

Obama: Obama acknowledges nuclear power as an important part of the non-carbon emitting generation mix, and sees its elimination as injurious to his climate goals. Before expanding nuclear power, Obama wants to solve the waste problem by introducing legislation that would track, control and account for spent fuel from plants. He also thinks Yucca Mountain is not the right place for waste storage.

McCain: For the amount of time it takes to get the permits in place, the senator has an ambitious plan for reintroducing nuclear power to the grid. He wants to have 45 new nuclear plants built by 2030, and has an ultimate goal of having 100 new plants built in the future. He also wants to keep the building of the plant’s components in the United States.

Emissions

When it comes to clamping down on all the nasty stuff pumped into the air, utilities and the auto industry will be hit hardest by heavier and heavier regulation that will be coming down the pike. Again, the demand problem is going to force utilities to depend in part on coal plants, so emissions will continue to be a problem. What can be done? Well, let’s see what the candidates want to do.

Obama: The senator wants his energy efficiency standards to take a bite out of CO2 emissions — 5+ billion tons through 2030. In addition, Obama supports a cap-and-trade system for carbon emissions reduction. Once pollution credits are auctioned, he wants to take the proceeds to fund the development of clean technologies, energy efficiency improvements, restoring wildlife habitats and for relief programs to “ensure that families and communities are not adversely impacted by the transition to a new energy, low carbon economy.” Finally, he wants to engage other “major emitting nations” like China and India to join in emissions reductions efforts.

McCain: McCain also supports a cap-and-trade system to get a handle on emissions. With the system, and with a streamlined process for deploying new technologies, he wants the carrot of being able to sell the credits you don’t use to encourage utilities and other companies to develop in-house emissions reducing methods of producing energy. He would, however, exempt small businesses from emissions standards. He wants to put the following goals in place for reducing emissions: by 2012, a return to 2005 levels; by 2020, a return to 1990 levels; by 2030, 22 percent below 1990 levels; and by 2050, a reduction to 60 percent below 1990 levels.

So there you have it, the candidates and how they intend to go green. Of course, this is all theoretical. Whoever gets in is going to have to take all this to Congress and we’ll just have to wait and see how it all shakes out from there.

This article was in no way intended to push you toward one candidate or the other, but hopefully it will push you to go vote in November.

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