Timothy Wirth, president of the UN Foundation, on energy development

In a speech delivered at the 21st Annual Energy Efficiency Forum, held at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C, Tim Wirth, president of the United Nations Foundation, exhorted policy-makers and legislators to tackle the question of clean energy with great urgency. Mr. Wirth’s remarks addressed this year’s Forum theme, “Energy Efficiency: Innovative Approaches, Proven Solutions.” He spoke of the necessity to address the U.S.’s clean energy needs with pragmatism: “my belief is that we have one more chance at this now. And that chance is enormously important,” said Wirth. He noted that we should be learning from recent disasters at the Massey mines in West Virginia, and of course the environmental catastrophy in the Gulf of Mexico: “we should have learned a huge lesson: we have reached beyond our technical capacity.”

Indeed, in his remarks, Wirth extolled the virtues of investing in and promoting those technologies which pose relatively less risk, thus diminishing the possibility of unintended consequences. He urged policy-makers to learn the lessons of our experiences, and to “look at the issue of energy development through the lens of risk.” Wirth discussed the three major pressures that should drive the discussion around energy development: (1) environmental challenges and climate change, (2) national security, and (3) economic rebuilding. Using these three frameworks, policy-makers should assess an acceptable level of risk – with corresponding insurances – that we are willing to take, collectively as a nation, to move forward with safe, clean and innovative energy development.

Wirth then highlighted the five points which he hopes will be central to any legislative product on energy, and which he believes “should dominate our thinking about what [these insurances] are.” Importantly, none of the five points he discussed touched on the controversial topic of carbon pricing. Even though Wirth pointed out that “ every bit of me believes that we need a carbon pricing system,” he noted that the discussion over cap and trade and carbon pricing had been “too sullied and too compromised.” Insisting on the urgent dimension of passing legislation on energy policy as quickly as possible, Wirth explained that energy legislation cannot get wound around the axle of carbon pricing: “we can’t afford [to go through a huge war on carbon pricing] , the political system cant handle it right now.” He encouraged legislators to look at the avenues where “we can do something right away.” Wirth added that “all of this can be done now, immediately. I don’t believe that Congress will be able to leave town without doing something about energy.”

Transitioning from coal, setting renewable energy standards, improving regulation, engaging the natural gas industry, and phasing-in energy efficiency standards – “these are all feasible”, Wirth said, adding that this will require real leadership from the White House. Below, the details of each of the five suggestions Wirth discussed during his remarks:

1. Transitioning from coal

Wirth reminded the audience that transitioning from coal is not, and should not, be about hurting the coal industry and ancillary businesses. Amendements to the Clean Air Act of 1990 stipulated that obsolete coal-fired power plants needed to be shut down, a clause which has yet to be fully enforced. These outdated plants need to be “phased out or shut down.” In addition, he mentioned that we cannot build anymore coal-fired power plants, because “we can’t afford to do so, we know the risk is too big.”

2. Stimulating technological innovation and clean energy sources

Setting renewable energy standards will “drive wind and solar right away,” Wirth said. He explained that this type of standard had been enacted successfully at the state level in 30 U.S. states, as well as in other countries. “We know that the most important and effective way of doing that [putting wind and solar out there] is to set renewable energy standards,” he noted. In addition to these standards, tax incentives provided over a long period of time, as well as a significant research & development package need to be put in place.

3. Strengthening the regulatory system

According to Wirth, “we ought to learn from the Gulf that this is the most important part of immediate public policy.” He added that “we depend upon the regulators and a sound, thoughtful regulatory structure to protect the public interest and protect public health.” He spoke of the importance of strengthening EPA, and not letting industry lobby groups drive a legislative process that seeks to pre-empt and circumvent the agency’s role. He explained that there is too much risk associated with letting this happen, mentioning that he felt “deeply doubtful that legislation can effectively replace what could be done at EPA.”
While tens of thousands of barrels of crude oil are gushing into the Gulf every day, Wirth’s remarks regarding the need for better regulation were underpinned by a strong sense of gravitas. He spoke of the sine qua non to “strengthen and use the regulatory regime”, to think about it differently, and to use this regime to achieve our goals.

4. Harnessing natural gas as a low-carbon transition fuel

“Natural gas is the transition fuel to a clean economy,” said Wirth. He enjoined policy-makers to very carefully examine the use of natural gas. “When Waxman-Markey was written”, he noted,  “we were just beginning to understand our own reserves of natural gas.” These reserves, in the forms of shales, exist around the world, and could constitute a major source of energy for the U.S., should policy-makers take a “series of steps that can and must be taken related to an understanding of natural gas.” We must do the very best we can to understand the implications of recovering gas from these untapped reserves, and fully consider the possibilities available to us. He added that, currently, the natural gas industry is not well-organized, and that it needs to be reinforced from the outside. It should not be seen or considered in opposition to wind and solar energy – on the contrary, Wirth believes that these industries need to be allied, rather than fight each other.

5. Embracing energy efficiency
Wirth also referred to the urgent need to develop efficiency standards. “We know what to do,” he said, adding that creating these standards – similarly to renewable energy standards – is something legislators at the state level have experience with. Wirth pointed out that the development of energy standards will offer the “best immediate jobs program that exists”. “Efficiency is the first fuel,” he noted, “it has to be a major part of what we do.” The U.S. has to make a significant commitment on that front, to finance and encourage the development of these standards.