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AWEA Panel: National Energy Plan Good for Gas, Renewables

A panel of energy and technology executives Tuesday reiterated the need for a national energy policy, saying it would help both traditional energy sources, such as natural gas, and various renewables, such as wind energy, which is experiencing a marked slowdown in its U.S. growth.

While statistics on the industry offered at the American Wind Energy Association (AWEA) annual meeting in Anaheim, CA, showed a slowing industry in the U.S., representatives from General Electric, Google and wind developers all think renewable energy's future can be as bright as that of the shale gas boom if policymakers create a cohesive energy plan.

"I don't think it is just wind advocates that should be worried, I think we all should be worried that we don't have a national energy policy," said Steve Trenholm, the CEO of German-based E.ON's climate and renewables operations in North America. "We really need a national policy to figure out how to best utilize all this natural gas."

Trenholm called the shale boom "a great thing for the country" but added that the nation is not really making maximum use of it. For example, he said natural gas is "a great transportation fuel and can greatly relieve amounts of foreign oil that we rely on for our transportation needs."

As a leading national legislative advocate for AWEA and his company's interests in Washington, DC, Trenholm said more natural gas use in transportation is something he has been advocating in his lobbying efforts in the nation's capital. "It takes advantage of this tremendous resource we have, and at the same time it supports the price of gas," he said.

"We don't want gas prices to go down too low; that doesn't serve anyone's purpose. And obviously it doesn't help wind development either."

The importance of help from the federal policymakers for wind was a continuing theme among the AWEA speakers, as exemplified by Sonny Garg, president of Exelon Power, who said government regulation and legislation is critical to the types of projects in which his company is investing.

"If you don't have production tax credits or investment tax credits, or you don't have renewable portfolio standards, it makes the projects very hard to do," Garg said. "You can't be building merchant wind, in my opinion, without the government policies needed to make it all economic."

Trenholm labeled as "absolutely critical" the need for energy companies to "become very active" in Washington. "The people in Washington, DC, simply don't have the facts. We spend a lot time talking to them, and as they understand the [renewables] business better, they generally support us conceptually. We don't have a lot of disagreement, except maybe on the way we fund things."

AES Executive Vice President Ned Hall said the lack of a national energy policy, and trying to rely exclusively on market signals, "is not going to be successful and will not result in diversity" of energy sources. "I believe diversity is important both as an energy executive and a wind energy person." Hall sees a lot of value in promoting policies "that encourage us to not put all our eggs in one basket."

Contending that the nation has lots of examples historically of ignoring diversity to the national detriment, Hall cited the late 1990s when "we built 350,000 MW of natural gas-fired generation in a rush and drove gas prices to $13/MMBtu, and that ended badly for a lot of businesses that went bankrupt." Currently, he thinks what he called an "attempted energy policy through Environmental Protection Agency regulations" related to coal-fired plants hasn't had success, or provided that motivation many people were looking for.

"Today with the lack of an energy policy that motivates wind, the disruptive nature of shale gas has changed the map again, and there is a rush back to gas," Hall said. "So if we are always chasing what we view the current least-cost opportunity, we will never get the diversity that I think all energy sources could benefit from."

In other parts of the world, Hall said there are examples of government energy policies that don't just focus on optimizing costs. They stress the value of a diversity of sources.

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