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Opinion

A bold -- and painless -- way to unleash energy innovation and create jobs

As we saw in the 1970s, new energy technologies blossom when oil gets expensive. We can raise the price of fossil fuels again without hurting consumers – if we implement a fee and rebate system.

By David Gordon Wilson / September 24, 2010



Cambridge, Mass.

The energy crisis from 1973 to 1981 was not a happy period for Americans, but it was also a time when entrepreneurs and engineers formed a huge number of new businesses aimed at producing low-cost solar cells, high-efficiency engines for automobiles, better insulation for our houses, and so on.

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I worked in the energy field then, consulting for many of these small – and large – companies. One was Sanders Associates of Nashua, N.H., with which I worked on a 100-megawatt solar turbine plant that came close to becoming reality. It was an exciting time for thousands of businesses that were close to major solutions to different aspects of the energy shortage and the extraordinarily high price of oil.

And then around 1981 the price of oil collapsed. Most of the companies working on solutions to the energy problems were either closed down or severely cut back.

Must move away from fossil fuels

Today, for environmental and national security reasons, America urgently needs innovative energy solutions that can power an economy still largely driven by fossil fuels. But so long as the price of oil remains superficially cheap, the incentive to develop the next generation of energy technologies will remain weak.

The lesson, then, is simple: If we could find a relatively painless way of increasing the price of fossil-fuel energy and the emission of pollutants, we could produce a similar surge of new businesses and reduce the unemployment rate – if there were a reasonable guarantee that the increased prices were permanent.

Oil prices deserve to be higher: Economists are continually telling us that fossil fuels and polluting emissions are severely underpriced because their price does not include all the “external costs” such as health, ecological, and environmental effects. Thousands of Americans who live in Ohio, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, and other states where companies have discovered new natural-gas deposits buried deep within shale formations are encountering these “externalities” in the form of polluted water and, in some cases, the ability to light the water in their kitchen sinks on fire!

Cap-and-trade is the wrong way to go

Many economists propose energy and emission taxes such as cap-and-trade as a way to price energy more accurately so that we would consume less and have fewer cases of pollution and related health problems.

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