The Plug-in Revolution

THE PLUG-IN REVOLUTION…. For the first time in a generation, energy policy has been among the leading issues in a presidential campaign. In the most recent presidential debate, Tom Brokaw asked the two candidates, “Health policies, energy policies, and entitlement reform, what are going to be your priorities in what order?” Barack Obama put energy first.

In the new issue of the Washington Monthly, Jeffrey Leonard, CEO of the Global Environment Fund, explains that the energy policy landscape is something of a good-news, bad-news situation. The good news is, the acute nature of the energy problem is, finally, widely recognized. Everyone not only decries the “addiction to foreign oil,” but seems to appreciate the broader significance in terms of the environment, the economy, and national security.

Then there’s the bad news.

The bad news is that none of the current energy plans being debated in Washington or presented by the presidential campaigns adds up to sound long-term policy for dealing with the energy challenges facing the U.S. Most of the supposed grand solutions turn out to be half-baked schemes that pander to voters and vested interests. John McCain argues for more drilling in America. Barack Obama favors more subsidies for ethanol. Oilman T. Boone Pickens advocates retooling cars to run on compressed natural gas. These and many other big energy plans have at least one thing in common: they involve a multiyear, massive-spending, government initiative that will set America on the path toward displacing foreign oil with some kind of domestically produced liquid fuel. That may seem like a sensible idea, but in fact it merely postpones, and therefore makes more costly and wrenching, the energy transition that I — and many other industry leaders I talk with — believe will save America.

In the film The Graduate, Walter Brooks famously gives Dustin Hoffman a one-word piece of career advice: “Plastics.” At the risk of sounding similarly glib, let me nevertheless suggest a one-word answer to our multifaceted energy problems: electrification. The basic idea is very simple. Over the next few decades, government policies should advance the aim of replacing oil and most other liquid fuels with electricity. It should also ensure that the way we generate electricity gets steadily greener and more efficient. Since about three-quarters of our oil goes into our cars, this means favoring policies that will encourage phasing out the internal combustion engine in favor of the electric engine — a direction in which many automakers are already headed. Electrification as a rallying cry for American energy policy isn’t perfect, but in my view it’s the best and perhaps only way to get us to a clean and secure energy future.

Leonard makes a very compelling case on a critical issue, explaining in some detail a new approach that could achieve both energy independence and environmental sustainability by 2050. Take a look.

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Steve Benen

Steve Benen is a producer at MSNBC's The Rachel Maddow Show. He was the principal contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal blog from August 2008 until January 2012.