I’m a carboholic, and so are you

Posted on October 14, 2007

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What, precisely, is a carboholic? When I first read the title of today’s guest column in the Washington Post (“We’re Carboholics. Make Us Stop.), I initially thought I was about to read a column on the poor dietary habits of U.S. citizens. But no, the author was actually David Crane, the CEO of Princeton, NJ-based NRG Energy, the tenth largest CO2 emitter in the country.

Unlike most of his peers, Mr. Crane is calling for Congressionally mandated CO2 emission reductions. His preferred method is understandably a cap-and-trade system as opposed to a progressive carbon tax, but given that he claims that NRG Energy emits more CO2 than the entire country of Norway, any call for limits on CO2 emissions by a coal power producer is newsworthy.

Mr. Crane is, unfortunately, completely correct that we simply cannot, at present, switch wholesale from dirt-cheap coal (excuse the pun) to renewables like solar, wind, or tidal. Even nuclear power plants take much longer to license and construct than coal or natural gas plants (although NRG Energy is the first to request new licenses in nearly 30 years), and so carbon-free technologies will take time and significant market forces to develop commercially.

If Congress acts now, the power industry will respond. We will do what America does best; we will react to CO2price signals by innovating and commercializing technologies that avoid, prevent and remove CO2from the atmosphere.

I emphasize the word “now.” We are not running out of time; we have run out of time. Decisions we make today in the U.S. power industry will have a significant impact on the size of the problem we bequeath to our children.

Without a price on CO2, our industry will build a veritable tidal wave of traditional coal-fired power-generation facilities. Traditional coal plants are, and will be for some time to come, the least expensive and most reliable way to generate electricity on a large scale in the United States, China, India and much of the rest of the world — that is, so long as the CO2emissions associated with burning coal in these countries remain free.

I’m used to hearing this from environmentalists, from Al Gore, from the IPCC, and I’ve even used language like this myself from time to time. But it’s refreshing to hear an industry CEO talking responsibly about his industry’s biggest waste product.

Unfortunately, as NYTimes columnist Thomas Friedman pointed out today in his column (Who Will Succeed Al Gore?, none of the current crop of Presidential candidates really has Mr. Gore’s passion, Gore’s not running, and Bush is unwilling and unable to do what’s necessary.

[W]e still need a president who can unify the country around meaningful action on energy and climate. Most of the Democratic candidates mouth the right words, but I don’t sense much real passion. Most of the Republican candidates seem to be brain-dead on the energy/climate challenge….

They can’t see what is staring us in the face — that in pushing American companies to become greener, we are pushing them to become more productive, more innovative, more efficient and more competitive.

Mr. Friedman calls this “our crucible moment,” implying that who we choose for our next President will make or break the nation with it’s response, or lack thereof, to global heating. If he’s right, we need more from the current crop of candidates, possibly even a different candidate, one who actually feels the passion and who can work with industry leaders like Mr. Crane.

It would also help to have a Congress to understands the importance of global heating.

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