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Texas test case for candidates' energy plans

The candidates share many concerns, but have clear differences in approach, too.

By Ron Scherer / August 6, 2008

Austin's programs cover a wide range of issues Jamie Greenhaw of Advanced Energy Industries, Inc., replaces tungsten and florescent light bulbs with more energy-efficient compact florescent bulbs.

Ann Hermes

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Austin, Texas - As part of his solution to America's energy woes, Barack Obama wants to phase out the common light bulb in six years.

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The Democratic senator's solution – under current law they phase out in 12 years – is taking place here where a city contractor is busy replacing incandescent bulbs with energy-saving compact fluorescent models. The goal: reduce power consumption so the city doesn't have to build another power plant.

John McCain's energy proposals include nudging Detroit to build vehicles more quickly that run on multiple fuels, such as ethanol or biodiesel.

The Republican senator's solution is also taking place here, where city vehicles can use one of six alternative fuels instead of conventional gasoline. The city's goal: lower greenhouse-gas emissions.

Welcome to the sweltering laboratory for some of the energy solutions proposed by both candidates in an election year when the economy and energy are the top issue for voters. For months – including this week – the candidates have been sniping away at each other over gasoline taxes, energy rebates, and offshore oil drilling.

Like many of the candidates' ideas, some of Austin's plans won't have an immediate effect – it could be 10 years or more until some of the efforts reduce the city's energy consumption in part because the technology is just not sufficient yet. But other ideas, such as a real push for conservation, are already paying dividends, reducing some of the need to build new power plants. In some cases, the city has thought about some of the candidates' proposals and already rejected them.

The basic thrust of the McCain approach is to encourage private enterprise, via tax incentives and other lures, to solve the problem. He sees energy as a national-security issue and wants to encourage more production of oil. Senator Obama's push is for a stronger Washington hand combined with new technology. He wants to break the United States of the oil "habit."

Nationally, the energy challenge for the candidates is Texas-size.

Every day, the US consumes 20.6 million barrels of oil, burning through $125 million an hour. Emissions of carbon dioxide are up 19.3 percent from 1990 to 2006. And neither candidate can get around the fact that the price of gasoline is way up over last year.

The economy is the No. 1 issue for voters this year, say pollsters. And for the pocketbook as well as for policy, energy leads economic concerns. "It will be a key driver to decide who wins," says Dennis Jacobe, Washington-based chief economist for the Gallup Organization.

In some ways Austin is ideal as a lab for clean energy: The city is the capital of the nation's most polluting state.

If Texas were a country, it would be the sixth most polluting nation on the planet, just ahead of Canada, says Austin's mayor, Will Wynn. "We are not only No. 1 in terms of carbon emissions, we emit more carbon than No. 2 California and No. 3 Pennsylvania combined."