Joint video conference focuses on need for energy authority

HOUGHTON – Energy for heating, electricity and to fuel our cars continues to get more expensive, and neither new technologies nor existing government strategies will solve the problem, according to John Hofmeister, founder and CEO of Citizens for Affordable Energy and former president of Shell Oil.

The only solution, he says, is a cohesive national energy plan, which politicians have promised but failed to deliver on going as far back as the Nixon administration. Since election-focused politics make such a plan just as unlikely in the future, the answer, he said, lies in creating a new energy agency similar to the Federal Reserve Board, which controls the nation’s monetary policy without having to answer directly to elected politicians.

“Why can’t we as citizens insist upon an independent regulatory authority, where an independent and educated board can decide what will be the sources of supply and how we’ll create infrastructure?” he asked Tuesday.

Hofmeister spoke in a lecture at Northern Michigan University that was also broadcast live at Michigan Technological University and Lake Superior State University.

At Tech, about 40 students, faculty and community members spilled out the door of the lecture room, and students were able to participate in the question and answer session through a two-way feed.

“The lecture was very informative, especially his thoughts on today’s children and making infrastructure improvements for the younger generation,” said Tech chemical engineering student Osy Onyegbula.

Hofmeister described energy as the “bread of life,” something we can’t live without in modern society but that is standardized in such a way that all gas, electric or other energy providers offer essentially the same product, even when prices fluctuate.

He said that most energy conversations focus either on expanding or changing how traditional energies are provided, or on changing entirely to new technologies.

But neither strategy is realistic, he said, considering the overall quantity of U.S. energy needs.

“Either/or conversations are pointless, don’t waste your time,” he said. “Energy is a both/and equation.”

That said, he noted that the lack of a cohesive national energy policy is crippling alternative energy development. Hofmeister said that wind farms, for example, require about five years to develop, and that potential investors are hesitant to put money forward when federal tax credits that made wind power profitable are renewed only on a year-to-year basis.

This year, he said, those credits lapsed, leaving investors who did take a chance in the lurch.

“Investors can’t invest because they don’t know what’s going to happen,” he said.

In the short term, he said, the most promising fuel is likely natural gas, which can be converted into several different types of fuel for vehicles and other applications – and will be if investors are allowed to know the rules of the market they’re operating in.

Overseas, he said, governments and private companies are working hand-in-hand on hydrogen fuel cells for automobiles, and will likely have huge hydrogen-powered fleets of cars before long.

But because our government lacks a plan, he said, the U.S. is far behind in bringing this technology to market.

During the question and answer portion of the lecture, one questioner pointed to predictions that energy consumption and corresponding pollution would lead to a four-degree rise in global temperatures in the next 50 years.

“Why not have a conversation about consuming less and preventing more of the climate events we’re seeing?” she asked.

Hofmeister said preventing climate change would require international agreement, and that the U.S. and other countries have refused to sign agreements.

In the late ’90s, he said, the Clinton administration supported signing the Kyoto Accord, but the Senate voted unanimously against it.

Without such agreements, he said, the U.S. would suffer for moving ahead on its own.

“Without other countries going along … the American people would pay the price,” he said.

Tech professor Dr. Mark Roberts, who teaches a course on energy economics and helped organize Tech’s participation in the event, said there are an increasing number of facilities on campus set up with the technology to make these sorts of shared educational events possible.

This gives students opportunities, such as interacting with Hofmeister, they otherwise wouldn’t have, he said.

Hofmeister, he said, “was a fabulous speaker, clear and insightful with a realistic view of the energy picture.”