R&D Necessary for an Affordable Future

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David Callis serves as Vice President of Statewide Services for the Tennessee Electric Cooperative Association

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R&D Necessary for an Affordable Future

by David Callis, Vice President of Statewide Services for the Tennessee Electric Cooperative Association

Almost three years ago, I wrote about the Obama-Biden comprehensive New Energy for America Plan. During the 2008 presidential campaign, the candidates said their plan would “help create 5 million new jobs by strategically investing $150 billion over the next 10 years to catalyze private efforts to build a clean energy future”

As of early September 2011, at least 1,100 of those new jobs aren’t there, nor is the $535 million that helped fund them. Solyndra LLC, which manufactured solar systems for commercial rooftops, suspended operations and filed for bankruptcy that month.

Next stop? Congressional hearings.

Without addressing any alleged improprieties surrounding the Department of Energy funding process, it’s obvious that the Solyndra loan was a bust to the federal government and private investors. Despite that failure, investing in renewable energy sources and creating new jobs still make sense, even though one congressman went as far to state that Solyndra’s downfall proves “that green energy isn’t going to be the solution.”

He’s partly correct — there is no “one” solution to our energy challenges. America’s cooperatives have long stated that there is no silver bullet that will magically solve all of our energy problems. That’s why we work hard to educate our members on ways to cut their energy consumption. But given growth in energy use and the relentless pressure to abandon coal as an energy source, utilities are forced to walk a fine line between investing in cleaner generation for the future while continuing to provide reliable and affordable generation for the here and now.

If our nation and our industry are to move forward, continued investments in research and development in energy sources are a necessity, despite the Solyndra debacle. According to the Washington Post, “The Energy Department’s loan-guarantee program, enacted in 2005 with bipartisan support, has backed nearly $38 billion in loans for 40 projects around the country. Solyndra represents just 1.3 percent of that portfolio — and, as yet, it’s the only loan that has soured … just a small fraction of loan guarantees go toward solar. The program’s biggest bet to date is an $8.33 billion loan guarantee for a nuclear plant down in Georgia.”

The Tennessee Valley Authority and electric cooperatives across the nation continue to be leaders in pursuing cost-effective renewable and low-emission energy strategies for their members. Building on the theme of multiple solutions, TVA has contracts in place that provide a large portfolio of wind power, solar generating facilities and methane throughout the Valley. As of July 2011, TVA’s owned and purchased renewable energy capacity was nearly 4,800 megawatts, including hydro, with commitments to add nearly 1,300 megawatts of combined wind, solar, landfill, methane and biomass.

TVA also continues to build and renovate its nuclear fleet. All of those generating sources emit far less carbon emissions than coal-fired generation.

What do all of those energy sources have in common? They’re all powered by the same source — funding, and lots of it. The electric utility industry is very capital-intensive, which is a very proper way of saying that it takes a tremendous amount of money to research, develop and build electric-generating units (even more so if those sources involve new or complex technologies).

However, investments in the future can’t be made at the risk of bankrupting the present. No matter what entity funds the investment in new technologies, the increased spending eventually works down to your electric bill or your tax bill.

As the Solyndra saga continues to unfold, let’s hope “the baby doesn’t get thrown out with the bathwater.” Government-guaranteed loans are a way to allow the government to outsource research and development costs. Properly evaluated, loan guarantees can speed development of carbon-sequestration technologies, nuclear generation and wind or other renewable generation. Each can play a role in our energy future — which we hope is an affordable energy future.

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