Congress has taken its first step toward an energy revolution, with the prospect of profound change for every household, business, industry and farm in the decades ahead.
It was late Friday when the House passed legislation that would, for the first time, require limits on pollution blamed for global warming — mainly carbon dioxide from burning fossil fuels. Now the Senate has the chance to change the way Americans produce and use energy.
What would the country look like a decade from now if the House-passed bill — or, more likely, a watered-down version — were to become the law of the land?
“It will open the door to a clean energy economy and a better future for America,” President Barack Obama said Saturday.
But what does that mean to the average person?
Energy touches every corner of the economy and in countless ways can alter people’s lives.
Such a law would affect how much people pay to heat, cool and light their homes (it would cost more); what automobiles they buy and drive (smaller, fuel efficient and hybrid electric); and where they will work (more “green” jobs, meaning more environmentally friendly ones).
Job killer or job shifter?
Critics of the House bill brand it a “jobs killer.” Yet it would seem more likely to shift jobs. Old, energy-intensive industries and businesses might scale back or disappear. Those green jobs would emerge, propelled by the push for nonpolluting energy sources.
That could mean making or installing solar panels, repairing wind turbines, producing energy-efficient light bulbs, working for an environmental engineering firm or waste recycler, making equipment that harnesses carbon from coal burning and churning out energy-saving washing machines or air conditioners.
Assembly line workers at factories that made gas-guzzling cars might see their future in producing the next generation of batteries or wind turbine blades — an emerging shift, though on a relatively small scale today. On Wall Street, commodity brokers would trade carbon pollution credits alongside oil futures.
Farmers would see the cost of fertilizer and electricity go up. More windmills would dot their pastures. And a new source of income could come from selling pollution credits by planting trees or changing farming methods to absorb more carbon dioxide.
Energy would cost more because it would become more expensive to produce. For the first time there would be a price on the greenhouse gas pollution created when coal, natural gas or oil are burned. Energy companies would have to pay for technologies that can capture the carbon emissions, purchase pollution allowances or shift to cleaner energy sources.
It all costs.
Investors would see a new line item on companies financial reports: the cost of carbon permits.
Some increases would be reflected in the prices of goods and services, economics say. It might mean shelling out more for a toy because plastic, a petroleum-based product, is more expensive, or paying more for a house because of new efficiency requirements.
Not all the higher energy cost would show up in people’s utility bills. Households, as well as business and factories — including those, for example, making plastic for toys — could use less energy, or at least use it more efficiently. The poorest of homes could get a government check as a rebate for high energy costs. That money would come from selling pollution allowances for industry.
Energy experts in government and industry say a price on carbon pollution would lead to new ways to make renewable energy less expensive, while emphasizing how people can use it more wisely.
Potential changes to how homes are built and even financed seem likely as energy efficiency is taken into account in building codes and the cost of mortgages. With the cost of energy increasing, homeowners and businesses would have greater incentive to use more energy-efficient lighting, windows and insulation.
Coal not going anywhere
But don’t think that the traditional sources of energy would disappear.
Coal, which today accounts for half the electricity produced, would continue as a major energy source, though a less polluting one, energy experts forecast. That would mean capturing the carbon released when coal is burned.
It’s a technological hurdle with a complication: “not in my back yard” complaints over what to do with the billions of tons of carbon dioxide captured from power plants and pumped beneath the earth. Would people feel comfortable having it stored near or under their homes, factories and businesses?
Scientists studying climate change say carbon capture from power plants is essential if the country is to take up the challenge against global warming.
The cleaner energy economy also put nuclear energy front and center. Does the U.S. build new power plants? If so, where, and where does all the waste go? Nuclear energy makes up about one-fifth of the nation’s electricity today.
The House-passed bill contains provisions to make it easier to get loan guarantees and expands the nuclear industry’s access to loans for reactor construction. An Environmental Protection Agency analysis that shows modest future costs from a low-climate energy world assumes a significant expansion of nuclear energy. The Senate could add more incentives for the nuclear industry.
The new energy world would rely more on natural gas. This abundant fossil fuel emits carbon but is relatively clean when compared with coal. But people would have to decide whether to accept new pipelines that are needed to ship the gas around the country — just as they would have to deal with the need for new power lines to move solar and wind energy to where it’s needed.