Matthew Kandrach

GUEST COMMENTARY: Biden must focus on affordable, reliable electricity

Democratic majorities in the House and Senate, along with a new Biden administration, promise sweeping policy changes in the United States. This includes campaign pledges to remake America’s electricity mix. But with campaign season over, Democrats should put rhetoric aside and pursue a bipartisan energy plan that supports economic recovery. During the 2020 campaign, Joe Biden pledged to “achieve a carbon pollution-free power sector by 2035.” Doing so would mean essentially — in a mere 14 years — eliminating all of the fossil-fuel power plants currently supplying 63 percent of America’s electricity needs. It’s just this type of plan that could prove crippling to the U.S. economy: eliminating millions of jobs and driving up energy prices while offering only vague promises on replacing longstanding power generation or managing additional costs. Both the U.S. and Europe already have some experience with this kind of aggressive transition away from traditional fuels toward more renewable power. And the results are troubling. For example, California’s shift to a renewable-heavy grid has already yielded some of the nation’s highest electricity prices as well as serious grid reliability issues. During a heatwave this summer, California suffered rolling blackouts when demand outstripped the state’s available power supply. Texas has experienced a similar shock, now that its power mix increasingly relies on wind generation. The state’s pivot away from traditional baseload power toward weather-dependent electricity has led to worrying shortfalls—including a 2019 summer heatwave when insufficient wind conditions caused electricity prices to spike as much as 36,000 percent. New England has seen price increases, too. Rapidly transitioning away from a balanced electricity mix that once included coal has meant dire fuel security warnings from the region’s grid operator along with electricity prices now running almost twice the national average. The same problems are cropping up overseas. Germany’s “energiewende” movement toward full-scale wind and solar power has driven German electricity prices to three times the U.S. average. Japan is also seeing record electricity prices as grid operators warn that available power isn’t keeping up with demand. And even the UK power grid is showing signs of strain. Britain’s grid manager has already issued four warnings this winter, with power demand on the verge of exceeding supply. It’s an alarmingly common occurrence now that the nation has shifted to greater reliance on intermittent wind generation. The Biden administration is taking office at a time of serious economic disruption from the COVID-19 pandemic. The new president may be eager to roll out a comprehensive energy agenda. But the American people can ill-afford the hefty additional costs right now. Families depend on reliable, affordable electricity. Yes, there’s great appeal to incorporating more solar and wind power in the nation’s electric grid. But the priority must be to ensure secure, affordable power for 330 million people. It would be a grave mistake to hurriedly abandon the nation’s current, diverse electricity mix in favor of costly power generation that could prove insufficient when it’s needed most. ^ Matthew Kandrach is president of Consumer Action for a Strong Economy, a free-market advocacy organization.

GUEST COMMENTARY: Keep energy affordable during COVID recovery

In the wake of nearly 40 million jobless claims in recent weeks, Americans are clearly struggling to pay the bills. In fact, a new national poll found that nearly 50 percent of registered voters are increasingly worried about paying for household expenses, including electricity. This isn’t surprising given the havoc that the coronavirus pandemic has wreaked on the country. But it reinforces the fragility of the U.S. economy, and why careful decision-making will be needed to get the nation back on its feet. So, what to do when millions of Americans are hurting in a way not seen in generations? One step is to ensure that the basic necessities of life do not become unnecessarily more expensive. And that starts with families being able to pay for the electricity needed to keep their homes livable during lockdown this summer. A pandemic requires exactly this type of blunt, realistic thinking: “How do we make sure families can stay in their homes? How do we hold down costs and make sure budgets aren’t stretched beyond the breaking point?” It’s likely that we’re only in the early stages of the pandemic and recovery. But the financial toll to date suggests that we’re already facing several years of a potentially serious economic downturn. And so, common sense dictates that we start planning right now to ensure families can keep paying for basic expenses over the next few years. Here’s one approach that public officials should consider: Right now, we simply don’t have the luxury of tinkering with the nation’s power grid. In recent years, there’s been plenty of well-intentioned talk about emissions targets and renewable energy mandates. But lawmakers, utilities, and public service commissions will need to change how they think about energy for the foreseeable future. Their priority must shift toward ensuring that the American people still have access to affordable, reliable power. What will that mean? For starters, families can’t afford to see their electric bills start climbing simply because baseload power plants — like reliable coal plants that have kept their electricity bills steady and manageable — are pushed into premature retirement to meet arbitrary renewable energy targets. Yet that’s already happening across the nation, with utilities marking up their rates and raising consumer prices to cover the expense of building new energy infrastructure. Even before the current pandemic the U.S. Energy Information Administration warned that one-third of U.S. homes were facing challenges in paying for electricity. Does anyone doubt that this burden will now increase? Compassion for our fellow Americans means recognizing that literally millions of families can’t afford to have their electricity bills rise by even a few dollars a month. And they certainly can’t face power outages or brownouts during peak demand. Reliability and affordability have suddenly become more important than ever in the shadow of an epidemic that has turned the U.S. economy upside down. The nation must pursue an energy policy that ensures balanced, secure, and affordable electricity. Matthew Kandrach is the president of Consumer Action for a Strong Economy, a free-market oriented consumer advocacy organization.
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