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How do we ensure energy security in the U.S.? Pursue a diverse and affordable energy mix

by Jerry Silva, Former Senior Advisor at the US Department of Energy and Former Senior Advisor for Southern California Edison

Over my 30+ year career at Southern California Edison, I have had the unique opportunity to be in the front row seat in some of the industries major challenges and changes. Too often, however, I have seen these changes present an undue burden on our disadvantaged and minority communities. From the energy crisis, municipalization, divestiture of power plants, CCAs, traditional oil/natural gas balancing, cleaner energy, and the integration of renewables into the grid, these have all presented major changes in the utility industry. As a result of all these opportunities, I have often been asked to play a key role in managing or rolling out various stakeholder engagement programs. As such, I have been a key player in licensing many capital projects and securing State, and Federal approvals from the California Public Utilities Commission, the Bureau of Land Management, and many agencies.

One of the most asked questions I often hear is what I think of renewable energy sources versus traditional oil/natural gas energy sources, balancing them out, how they are integrated, and how to manage all the complexities. In short, we need to provide balance as we approach these problems, both for the reliability of the grid and for our low-income and minority communities.

First, our policies should be focused on technology intelligence systems, sustainable/balanced green programs that are focused on reducing carbon footprint implemented in coordinated phases. Too often polices are adopted that unintentionally impact many of our low-income and minority communities. These communities are often touted as being able to benefit from reduced pollution, but they also carry the brunt of the escalating price increases of these programs, which are invariably passed on to ratepayers.

The oil and gas industry have been targeted in favor of clean energy, which offers lower carbon footprints and the promise of slowing global warming. However, renewables carry their own environmental impacts – such as covering dwindling desert landscapes with solar panels, the challenges wind turbines present to bird populations, or water resource management behind hydroelectric dams. Options such as solar power, wind, electric, and hydroelectric are some of the ways to reduce carbon footprints and global warming, but they do not come without increased costs. We all desire cleaner, sustainable, balanced, and affordable energy for our growing energy economy as well as a cleaner environment for ourselves, our families, and our communities. The key is finding a balance of reliable, affordable energy in the right mix of energy sources.

Rooftop solar is a renewable solution, which reduces residential or commercial demand on the grid. In fact, rooftop solar is one of my favorites. However, set-up  can be expensive and the disadvantaged, minority and low-income communities who need reliable alternatives often cannot afford these extra costs despite their value to lowering energy costs.

Another option, hydroelectricity is a cheap, clean, and great solution. However, it is all based on annual snowpack and runoff, making it less predictable and, therefore, less reliable.

Wind is another renewable resource but forecasting the wind patterns is very difficult for the energy planners. The production curve of this resource makes it challenging to integrate.

Electric power through batteries is a great option but presents its own challenges. Focusing our efforts in building a smarter transmission and distribution grid, building a more resilient grid to deliver, and managing all these new energy impacts requires a holistic strategic approach. Utilities will be tasked with the difficult job of managing energy sources powering the grid when demand is escalating and requires shedding load through various programs to maintain grid stability and minimize blackouts.

The fact of the matter is that oil and natural gas are low cost, cost effective, predictable, and reliable energy sources.

While having many benefits, clean energy is often more expensive to produce and consume. It is in remote regions that require expensive new transmission lines and substations. Renewable projects have their own environmental impact and are more expensive than traditional resources. The utility and gas bills of consumers will continue to increase with these newer, cleaner energy sources. The reality is not everyone can afford it.

Minority and low-income communities will continue to be disproportionately affected by these newer, more expensive policies. Larger families and older, less efficient homes are some of the culprits that will drive the cost of energy up for minority and low-income families if we are forced into only renewable and all-electric options. We cannot abandon one energy source for another higher cost or unpredictable energy source without understanding the impacts to our communities.

While I agree that oil and gas contribute to climate change, we cannot completely abandon one energy source for another higher cost or unpredictable energy source without understanding the impacts to our communities. The solution is a mix of all energy sources. Those who can switch to rooftop solar, hydroelectricity, wind, and electric should have the option to do so. Others who are not able to switch should have the choice to continue being serviced with traditional oil and gas. We need a balanced energy policy at the state and federal levels to phase in all energy sources that impact everyone less disproportionately.