Public Policy Questions Part of Energy Equation

Skyrocketing fuel prices and growing concern over greenhouse-gas emissions have the U.S. scrambling for answers to its energy questions. But the mad dash for alternatives sometimes produces unintended consequences or leaves public input in the dust, according to NC State researchers, who say the nation’s energy policy needs to be more deliberate.

“Given half a chance, the public can develop a working grasp of science and make contributions to the (energy) discussion.”

The U.S. has mandated production of 9 billion gallons of biofuel this year—primarily corn-based ethanol—and the law requires 15 billion gallons by 2015. The move is redirecting billions of bushels of corn from the food supply to the energy pipeline and has been one of the primary factors behind soaring food prices. “The mistake we made with corn ethanol was to do too much too fast,” says Kelly Zering, associate professor of agricultural and resource economics. “We didn’t evaluate the costs of using crops for biofuels.” Zering and Henry Tsai, a financial analyst for the North Carolina Solar Center, are now doing just such a study.

Other energy policy moves have produced side-effects as well, says Zering, who also is studying how to make various technologies commercially viable. He cites a 30-year-old tax credit for blending ethanol into gasoline that remains in effect despite the surge in the ethanol market that has made it unnecessary. Such efforts need to be examined more on the front end as the U.S. tries to encourage the production and use of alternative fuels, he says. “How do you design incentives to avoid doing damage to the rest of the economy?”

Public input could help the government and the energy industry design a successful policy, suggests Dr. William Kinsella, an associate professor of communication in the College of Humanities and Social Sciences. A former physicist, he is studying the public discussion of nuclear energy production in the U.S. “Given half a chance,” he says, “the public can develop a working grasp of science and make contributions to the discussion.”

“The mistake we made with corn ethanol was to do too much too fast.”

Kinsella previously examined the public’s interaction with military and technical experts regarding the ongoing clean-up of nuclear wastes at the Hanford weapons site in Washington state. He is now expanding that research to look at the dynamics in the debate over commercial nuclear power, which is receiving renewed consideration in the U.S. The government invested more than $300 million last year in nuclear energy technology, and utilities are looking at building the first wave of new reactors in more than three decades. “There is no silver bullet in devising public policy,” Kinsella says. “But you need to bring citizens and experts together repeatedly over time to make the process work smoothly.”


From the field to the fuel pump, the surge in ethanol production has changed the economics for corn farmers and consumers.

The U.S. government invested more than $300 million in nuclear energy technologies in 2007, and utilities are looking to build the first wave of new reactors in decades.