Amidst a steady stream of coal unit retirement announcements and lip service given to the coal industry during U.S. presidential debates, some very interesting energy news has surfaced in other countries. News that policymakers should pay attention to. In Britain, energy regulator Ofgem (that’s the Office of Gas and Electricity Markets) has warned that the United Kingdom could face blackouts by 2015 as a result of coal and oil-fired power stations being phased out too quickly. Most telling, the regulator said that despite encouraging the building of lower-carbon power sources to bolster the country’s power structure, the “problems have not gone away.” Coal remained the dominant fuel in the UK over gas, due to low prices. Over in Germany, the government shuttered nearly half of the country’s nuclear stations, only to find itself relying on coal even more. While Germany wanted to commit to reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 40 percent by incorporating larger percentages of renewable energy, problems with grid instability surfaced during a summer which saw unprecedented use of wind power. And of course who could forget the massive power outages in India, leaving 670 million people without electricity due to inadequate generating capacity, with some coal plants idling from lack of fuel. For a country that depends on coal for nearly 70 percent of its electricity generation, India has messed things up with policies that limited investment in energy resources and created inverted electric pricing schemes. In the aftermath of the Fukushima disaster, Japan planned to abandon nuclear power entirely, only to abruptly back off on that policy amidst criticism. Japan relies on imports for 80 percent of its energy needs due to lack of domestic resources, so replacing displaced nuclear capacity (which accounts for 30 percent of the country’s power generation) would only make that country more reliant on imports. Japan’s future energy plans remain vague, and no new reactors are planned at this time.
If we can learn anything from other countries, it is that providing reliable power economically is a balancing act. It is not wise to abandon any major domestic source of energy in haste. To do so risks increasing reliance on imports and compromising the stability of the transmission system. The economic consequences of walking away from nuclear, coal, oil, or natural gas would be severe, not just to those industries and its suppliers, but also to American manufacturing and businesses from higher energy prices, a strained electric grid, and brownouts. The U.S. has a chance to be the world leader in energy, deploying advanced coal technologies, new generation nuclear power, safe extraction of natural gas and domestic oil reserves, innovation in biofuels and bioenergy, and a modernized transmission network that effectively utilizes solar and wind energy resources. Or we will just repeat other countries’ hapless mistakes.