By Rolf Norstrom, Great Plains Institute

Markets work well at efficiently allocating scarce resources in the short run, but are less effective at helping society reach longer-term goals such as affordable, reliable, sustainable, domestically-produced electricity and fuels.

What we're missing is a coherent policy framework that rewards the outcomes we want.

As it is, we pursue our energy future as a zero-sum game: wind versus solar, solar versus biomass — and all three versus coal, nuclear, oil, and to a lesser extent natural gas. Algae enthusiasts battle for parity with corn ethanol; supporters of battery-electric vehicles bash hydrogen fuel cell electric vehicles; those who favor distributed energy rage against transmission lines needed to bring renewable energy from where it is windy and sunny to where people need the power — and so it goes.

Yet, anyone who has looked at projected energy demand over the next 30 years, combined with the need to essentially eliminate CO2 emissions by mid-century, knows that we will need all of the above along with energy technologies that have yet to be invented to position our economy and nation to flourish long-term.

So, why do we continue with a piecemeal approach to energy policy when we know that won't cut it?

A recent David Brooks column has at least part of the answer: " ... classic research has suggested that the more people doubt their own beliefs the more, paradoxically, they are inclined to proselytize in favor of them. David Gal and Derek Rucker published a study in Psychological Science in which they presented some research subjects with evidence that undermined their core convictions. The subjects who were forced to confront the counterevidence went on to more forcefully advocate their original beliefs..." If this is truly our nature, it explains a lot about our political discourse on any number of topics — once people's positions have ossified in place they are really tough to change.

Our individual tendency to believe what we already believe and to push for advantage for our own favorite energy technology(ies) suggests that we need a new approach to energy policy that builds on things nearly everyone can agree on. For example:

  • Saving money and creating jobs at home by adopting proven energy efficiency measures for everything from appliances and buildings to industrial facilities and whole communities;

  • Using more of the "wastes" we produce in society to produce useful energy here at home. This includes everything from using food waste, manure and crop residues to make biogas to using CO2 from ethanol plants for enhanced oil recovery at aging domestic oil fields;

  • Investing much more heavily in R&D that will make cleaner domestic energy cheaper than dirtier foreign energy.

Here is to a more peaceful and productive 2011!