Apparently, Failure is an Option on Energy: Now What?

08/03/2010 04:34 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

America's political leaders seem to have collectively decided that passing legislation to tackle the country's looming energy and environmental problems is just too hard - at least when there's an election on the horizon. If you haven't been keeping close tabs on Beltway partisan politics, it must seem like a bewildering turn of events. Not so long ago, Democrats and Republicans, leaders in business and government, energy companies and environmental advocates, were all circling around some consensus decisions to move the country forward.

• Heading into the last election - in other words, just two years ago -- you had to be heavily into energy wonkdom to describe the differences between, say, Senator John McCain's position on energy and the environment versus those of key Democrats like Senators John Kerry, Hillary Clinton, and Barack Obama.
• Last year, big companies like Apple and Nike, and energy companies like Pacific Gas and Electric and Exelon, swiftly distanced themselves from Chamber of Commerce statements that appeared to question global warming science.
• Just a few months ago (in May) a group of corporations and environmental groups urged Congress "to move forward this year on comprehensive energy and climate legislation." The group included Alcoa, Dow Chemical, Dupont, Ford Motor Company, General Electric, Google, and Honeywell, plus key environmental groups like the Environmental Defense Fund and the Nature Conservancy. Even the Campbell Soup Company was on board, for heaven's sake.

Yet despite this broad support, Congress decided to put its energy elsewhere. It's too bad a decision by the Senate to ignore a problem doesn't actually make the problem go away. The truth is that we'll be forced to change course on energy and climate no matter what.

And we're not just talking about climate change (although there's very little doubt about that). We're also talking about how we get energy and how much we pay for it. World energy demand is projected to climb 40 percent over the next 20 years. The world is going to have trouble coming up with enough energy to meet demand, much less the cleaner energy required to limit global warming. It's a standard recipe for rising prices.

The government's own projections show that the United States gets 84 percent of its energy from fossil fuels now; and it'll still be getting 78 percent from fossil fuels twenty years from now - unless something changes. With Washington AWOL, is there anything that can be done?

There is one area where local governments, businesses and citizens - all the folks who aren't paralyzed by Washington partisanship - could get together and act. And the good news is that this is an area that's fundamental to everything else we need to do: It's the smart grid.

The Obama administration has put $3.5 billion in federal money, matched by local utilities, behind the idea of a "smart grid" that would combine the brute force of our current power system with the information technology of the Internet. We need to upgrade the grid anyway - it's old, and if you're living through one of the heat waves in the East, you can practically hear it creaking. More importantly, there's a whole list of energy changes that depend on having a better grid:

Wind and solar power. The Great Plains, for example, are a great place for wind farms, but not that many of us live on the prairie. We need better long-distance lines to carry the power. Plus, we need a grid that can handle the peaks and valleys in power generation that occur when the wind dies off or the sun goes down.

Electric cars. If people start driving cars like the Chevy Volt or the Nissan Leaf, we'll use less oil, but there will be more demand on the electricity grid. And we'll need charging stations that are as common as gas stations are now.

Preventing blackouts. The power grid is already running close to capacity in certain parts of the country, like Southern California and the New York-Washington corridor. A better grid will help avoid summer blackouts and other potential problems.

The grid is about as boring as a political topic gets, and maybe that's an asset. Unlike big ideas like cap-and-trade or a carbon tax, the grid operates at the margins. Yes, there's local opposition to the idea of power lines running through neighborhoods, and the network of state regulators, utility companies and local activists can be pretty tangled. But this world isn't nearly as hyperpartisan as Washington.

In case you never saw it, our headline is a take-off on famous line from the movie Apollo 13. In the movie (about the real-life rescue of three astronauts stranded in space) a bunch of pocket-protector-wearing engineers managed to pull off an amazing feat because they wouldn't accept failure as an option - especially when it comes to finding enough power to bring the spaceship home. They also decided to stop arguing, and in the film's other famous line, just "work the problem." Maybe the Senate has thrown in the towel on major energy and environmental legislation this year, but that doesn't mean we can't get anything done. It is definitely time to "work the problem, people."