Skip to Content

Chasing the Elusive Energy Policy

Strong energy policy is needed now more than ever, but the chances that Congress will pass one in 2012 are slim.
January 3, 2012

Prospects for passing some sort of long-term energy policy were good just two years ago, but a lousy economy and some aggressive lobbying by opponents of climate change policy derailed those efforts, and there’s no reason to think things will get back on track in 2012.

The closest possibility may be clean energy standards legislation being crafted by Jeff Bingaman, a Democratic senator from New Mexico. But Republicans have already lined up against such a measure, and even existing clean energy policies are being questioned, especially after the failure of the solar cell maker and loan guarantee recipient Solyndra. (See “Solyndra: We Told You So.”) Election year politics may force legislators to steer clear of hot button issues like climate change.

In the absence of a comprehensive energy policy, expect increased use of natural gas, which is cheap because of large newly economical resources in the United States, and decreased use of coal, which is the subject of new EPA regulations. Without policy support, or sudden, big improvements to battery technology, it’s hard to see electric vehicles taking off quickly, and as the cellulosic ethanol industry has been slow to get going, don’t expect biofuels to make a big dent in gasoline consumption. Indeed, the country may grow yet more dependent on oil as large new resources are exploited in places such as North Dakota and Texas, and friendly neighbors such as Canada. Some experts are starting to suggest that within a decade or two, the Americas would no longer need to import any oil. That might sound good, but oil prices will still depend on the worldwide market for oil—as long as demand is growing as it has been in recent years, prices will stay high, and volatile, even if the U.S. starts sending more money to Brazil and Canada and less to the Middle East.

Looking ahead, we can also expect to see more failures in the solar industry, as low prices force many out of business. One thing that will be interesting to watch is the extent to which the survivors manage to succeed, even in a climate of reduced government incentives. The U.S.-based solar panel manufacturing giant First Solar recently announced that it plans to stop targeting fickle subsidized markets, and instead sell to places where its technology makes economic sense on its own merits. Prices for solar panels may have decreased enough in recent years that the industry can survive on its own–serving areas with lots of sun and high electricity prices—albeit at a smaller size than it could with government support.

Keep Reading

Most Popular

This startup wants to copy you into an embryo for organ harvesting

With plans to create realistic synthetic embryos, grown in jars, Renewal Bio is on a journey to the horizon of science and ethics.

VR is as good as psychedelics at helping people reach transcendence

On key metrics, a VR experience elicited a response indistinguishable from subjects who took medium doses of LSD or magic mushrooms.

This nanoparticle could be the key to a universal covid vaccine

Ending the covid pandemic might well require a vaccine that protects against any new strains. Researchers may have found a strategy that will work.

Stay connected

Illustration by Rose Wong

Get the latest updates from
MIT Technology Review

Discover special offers, top stories, upcoming events, and more.

Thank you for submitting your email!

Explore more newsletters

It looks like something went wrong.

We’re having trouble saving your preferences. Try refreshing this page and updating them one more time. If you continue to get this message, reach out to us at customer-service@technologyreview.com with a list of newsletters you’d like to receive.