By Jessica Wehrman
WASHINGTON — The president and CEO of American Electric Power, giving a speech in the shadow of the White House today, had a fairly direct message to its occupant: Develop a comprehensive energy policy and do it soon.
Nick Akins of Columbus-based AEP told a ballroom full of business leaders at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce that without a comprehensive energy policy, the United States would continue to founder economically.
“A reasonable, comprehensive energy policy must be a priority,” he said.
Akins said in recent years, a “perfect storm of circumstances” has spurred energy companies to rely increasingly on natural gas as the preferred fuel for energy generation.
The Fukushima nuclear accident in Japan, the recession, the Solyndra scandal and EPA regulations on coal have pushed demand for natural gas up, and fracking and directional drilling have also made natural gas more readily available. The amount of electricity generated by gas jumped 24 percent last year and is expected to increase another 14 percent this year. And AEP, which used 80 million tons of coal in 2008, is expected to use 55 million tons this year.
But Akins said that had him worried: Natural-gas prices have traditionally been volatile.
“Betting on just one fuel to power our energy future isn’t smart,” he said.
He urged the federal government to ease up the speed with which it is transitioning out of coal, and do more to encourage other fuels, including nuclear and renewals. AEP has traditionally been reliant on coal for its electricity generation, but Akins said by 2020, only 50 percent of its power generation will come from coal.
“We need time to transition the fleet,” he said. “Our industry already has cut emissions from coal plants by nearly 80 percent. AEP spent $7.2 billion in the last decade reducing emissions by 80 percent.”
He said EPA requirements to reduce emissions further by 2015 could increase energy prices and put the reliability of the electricity grid at risk. Doing so would also be a strain on the economy, with manufacturers who need low-priced energy facing uncertainty at a time when they are struggling to recover.
“It’s extremely important for us to get this done right,” he said.