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Let’s innovate rather than bicker over sources of energy


In a presidential election year of debate over policies and personalities, there’s been no discussion of the connection between income inequality and the domestic energy revolution. But there should be. Morgan O'Brien

Technology innovation has yielded access to vast, affordable energy resources in our country that hold the potential to improve our persistent lack of significant economic growth, which is necessary to raise the income prospects of every segment of our population. Let me explain – from the perspective of 25-plus years working at public utility companies.

One thing I’ve learned is that people who have trouble paying their utility bills are more likely than not to also have trouble feeding their families and providing shelter and warmth in cold weather for them. The other relationship between these “big three” human needs and energy is that, the higher the energy costs, the more expensive food and shelter become. Higher energy costs impact directly or indirectly nearly everything we buy and use in our daily lives. So the higher we drive energy prices – including through public policy -- the further we drive the distance between the wealthy few and the struggling many.

Let’s look at our Western Pennsylvania region to illustrate the connection between energy and economic opportunity for those who need it most. It is an area on the brink of what could be a once-in-a lifetime chance to create jobs, wealth and advancement for all: The source of that potential is natural gas from the Marcellus Shale.

Despite all the headlines about Pittsburgh having younger, more educated professionals with advanced degrees and higher-paying jobs than ever, we still have many neighborhoods and families that are left behind. The wealth gap between those who have and those who don’t is undeniable.

We now have a historic opportunity to take a relatively clean, economical energy source – natural gas -- and apply it to the needs of an entire community that is literally standing on top of some of the largest reserves in the world. But here’s the rub: There is ongoing and increasing conflict about which energy sources represent preferable, or even acceptable, risks.

The benefits of environmental and human health have been pitted against the benefits of economic health. Yes, the thinking goes, carbon-based energy sources are plentiful and economical, but they must be eliminated because they also emit greenhouse gases. For some, even natural gas is not acceptable, even though it is amazingly affordable and burns fully two-thirds cleaner than coal or oil. The relentless drumbeat is that environmental health can be served only through use of “renewable” energy sources – but don’t count on seeing much attention given to their negative economic or environmental impacts.

Increasingly, it’s not a reasoned, respectful and evidence-driven discussion or debate – it’s been turned into an argument. For people who claim to share a concern with the efficient use of our resources, we’re certainly expending significant amounts of time, effort and breath to publicly litigate this environmental vs. economic question.

How did we get to a place where we’re being offered what, in my opinion, is a false choice: affordable energy that critics say is not compatible with a healthy environment, or far more expensive energy favored as more environmentally acceptable? For a real-world example of where this perspective can lead, just look to Germany, where electricity rates have skyrocketed since that nation turned away from nuclear power, which emits zero greenhouse gases.

I imagine instead a dialog on energy and investment of resources in which innovative technologies are paramount in the quest to bring our economic and environmental/​human health interests into alignment. Not by playing one valuable energy source against the other, but by assertively encouraging, funding and illuminating the technologies that will make energy sources both environmentally and economically viable. Or to align them as closely as possible – there is no solution completely free of downsides.

Bill Gates recently announced a $2 billion fund to find breakthrough “clean energy” technologies. That’s all to the good, but what if some of the “energy miracles” he finances turn out to make fossil fuels “clean”? Wow – combine the abundance and affordability of coal, oil and natural gas with the ability to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions.

Could those who are invested so heavily in demonizing carbon or targeting it for taxation suddenly embrace an innovation that makes fossil fuels as environmentally attractive as their economics? It’s doubtful – and there’s a clue in the critics’ response to Mr. Gates’ Breakthrough Energy Coalition: They worry that new ideas and solutions could undermine efforts to deploy wind and solar energy more rapidly.

Are we looking to build wind and solar, or are we working on energy innovations that will optimize access, affordability and environmental sustainability across the energy spectrum? For me, if the solution is something completely new —  so be it.

It’s easy to say we should stop using certain energy sources. For engineers – who are grounded in practical reality more than most — and other thoughtful leaders, it’s clear that transitions from trillions of dollars of infrastructure to new systems will take a long time. In the meantime, we should focus on innovation that improves what we have at hand, while showing more concern for lower-income energy consumers.

Mr. Gates’ leadership on energy innovation aligns with this thinking, and he can afford a megaphone to get out his message. Our business and political leaders should listen and build on his efforts to make energy innovation our priority across the full spectrum of solutions — nuclear, renewable and carbon-based.

Let’s stop arguing and start solving problems. Let’s create the more affordable, accessible and environmentally sensitive energy sources of the future. Let’s innovate and build, rather than waste time bickering about whether that energy comes from the sun, wind or earth.

Article originally published in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette on August 7, 2016.