Students from the Thomas Jefferson Program in Public Policy took their second and final fall semester in D.C. policy discussion panel trip on Friday, November 3, 2006. The topic was energy, and the discussions centered around future energy consumption, renewable sources of energy, energy market deregulation, and policy issues such as subsidies for alternative energy sources like wind, solar, and geothermal power. Students met with three experts in the field who gave informative and thought-provoking talks and were open to the questions that students had. By the end of the afternoon, TJPPP students had been exposed to a multitude of different energy issues and possibilities, and were able to begin formulating their own ideas in response to such concerns.
Dr. Karen Obenshain of the Edison Electric Institute was the first speaker of the day. Dr. Obenshain used her background as a senior-level Manager of Fuels and Technology to propel the discussion into talking about electric energy sources like wind, natural gas, and coal. Electricity requires a huge amount of energy from those sources in order to maintain its current consumption levels in America, and ongoing debate revolves around our ability to maintain such levels. Such an issue will surely require the input of TJPPP graduates in their future careers, and exposure to energy consumption issues is exciting to students, as well as compelling.
Another energy concern Dr. Obenshain spoke of was energy security, and the U.S.’s ability to create a diverse energy portfolio that does not require dependence upon non-friendly nations in the long run. Students were intrigued by Department of Defense implications in the energy industry, as well as the opportunity for responsible international policy making. Dr. Obenshain was also able to go into some scientific detail about advanced coal combustion technologies, sequestration, and nanotechnology.
Jim Schultz, from the American Iron and Steel Institute, was the second speaker for the Friday in D.C. event. Mr. Schultz spoke about the economic implications involved in energy consumption and production, especially in regards to the introduction of competition, unregulated monopolies, and deregulation of the energy market. Mr. Schultz, an expert in the steel industry, was able to give real-life examples of what happens when the government participates in the regulation of an enormous competitive market. Students were invited to apply the theories they explore in Microeconomics and Market Regulation to understand the concepts Mr. Schultz presented.
Mr. Schultz also used various economic examples to demonstrate how ultimately, all energy decisions are consumer driven. He discussed the current automobile industry and their market competition models between sport utility vehicles and hybrid cars; when fuel prices fluctuate, the sales of SUV’s and hybrid cars see-saw back and forth until consumers establish a new equilibrium compromising fuel prices and fuel efficient vehicles. Mr. Schultz used this model to demonstrate how much power consumers have when it comes to the market and policy decisions.
The third and final speaker of the day was Carl Gaywell. Mr. Gaywell is the Executive Director of the Geothermal Association and the discussion that he led focused around renewable energy sources such as solar and wind power, and their impacts. Mr. Gaywell informed students about the American food systems’ total dependence upon energy, mostly in the form of transportation methods. He led students through a hypothetical scenario, taking food from the American Midwest to a big east-coast city, and students were able to visualize how energy literally fuels their food. From the coal used in the plants to package and process foods to the petroleum used to fuel the trucks importing food into cities, energy consumption was brought to a new level when examining the food system.
Mr. Gaywell introduced fascinating policy concepts to the TJPPP group when he explained how all energy development is government subsidized. He explained to the students that, regardless of the specific energy sources being used, the federal government spends a quantifiable part of their budget every year on research and indirect marketing for energy sources and development. Mr. Garywell used visual materials to demonstrate how the American government’s funding for renewable energy resources propels that industry to be potentially competitive, but that government funding is mostly research-based, which could help explain why renewable sources are not highly competitive in the market against oil, coal, and natural gas.
The energy policy talk offered students the opportunity to look closer at current energy policies, as well as to consider unique solutions to future dilemmas. The TJPPP students returned to Williamsburg with new ideas and perspectives that will help them become better energy policy advocates and policy makers in general. The concepts and foundations they learned on this Friday in D.C. will undoubtedly linger in their academic and professional careers.