Capitol Ideas May/June 2012

For the first time in more than 30 years, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission has given the go-ahead to build reactors at two existing nuclear power plants—one in Georgia and one in South Carolina. Some pundits have said this signals a nuclear renaissance for the United States, while experts agree that it’s more of a nuclear thaw.

“We are in expansion mode,“ said Steve Kerekes, senior director of media relations for the Nuclear Energy Institute, a policy organization representing the nuclear industry. “We readily acknowledge it’s going to be a fairly measured expansion. At best, we’ll have five new reactors online by the end of this decade.”

2012 is supposed to be the Year of the Electric Vehicle—the year when Americans stop asking if electric vehicles are for real, according to Pike Research.

The global marketing firm that analyzes clean energy markets, expects more than 257,000 plug-in electric vehicles will be sold worldwide in 2012. More than 66,000 of those will be sold in North America alone.

That’s a lot of new cars needing to be plugged in every night to recharge.

Puerto Rico Gov. Luis Fortuño has taken steps to lower energy costs and decrease the island’s dependence on foreign oil. He also sees benefits in working with other U.S. territories in the Caribbean to address energy challenges.

The crystal ball is murky when it comes to predictions about energy consumption, markets and future trends.

Consider hydraulic fracturing, for example. Ten years ago, the U.S. Geological Survey estimated resource potential in the Marcellus Shale region was off by 70 times, according to current federal surveys.

“I think it’s essentially impossible to anticipate what energy markets are going to look like in 20 or 30 years, because the rate of change in technology and potential for climate change are so great and so disruptive that the world is going to be fundamentally different than it is now,” said John Petersen, the founder of the Arlington Institute, a nonprofit research organization that focuses on future global trends.

The lack of a true federal energy policy has been a source of frustration for policymakers on all sides of the ideological spectrum. Unfortunately, Washington will provide little clarity any time soon as the pattern of fits and starts and conflicting messages on energy policy will continue as gas prices climb.

But there is some good news despite the gloom. Oil and natural gas production is booming domestically, with states directing 96 percent of the increase in production since 2007. Solar installations doubled and installed wind energy increased by 31 percent over the past year.

The economics of alternative energy development, however, rely heavily on federal tax incentives and low-interest loans that have come under fire over their cost and charges of political favoritism by picking winners and losers.