How Public Land Can Jumpstart Clean Energy

Recent trade disagreements and Interior Department activities have brought to bear a crucial difference between China and America’s policy approaches to their respective clean energy industries; namely, that when America talks about providing capital, it is really only dealing with half the picture. While American policy makers have been obsessively focused on access to financing, China has approached the idea of capital with a broader definition, focusing both on access to funding as well as land.

The importance of policy that makes prime land accessible to this emerging industry is only now becoming clear. Tuesday’s announcement, of the Interior Department’s approval of the 1000 megawatt Blythe Solar Power Project on public land in California, alongside the groundbreaking of a $2 billion solar development on public land in Ivanpah, California, are steps in the right direction but still falls short of the comprehensive approach to capital that will be necessary to compete with China in the future.

The recent complaint by the United Steel Workers Union to America’s WTO representative about the Chinese government’s unfair trade practices – including highly favorable land grant agreements with renewable companies – has brought China’s aggressive industrial and trade policies into the spotlight. This coupled with the recent efforts of the Department of the Interior: Bureau of Land Management to make public land available for renewable power facilities, make clear that money isn’t the only commodity the government must provide to foster the renewable energy sector. Renewable energy sources are in many cases not just more expensive then their traditional counterparts, but larger and more constrained during deployment by certain geographic necessities. Access to cheap and prime land then becomes a necessity for fostering renewable energy production and the markets for these products here in the U.S.

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The American Dream and the American Reality

The mood in the United States has become decidedly pessimistic.  The middle class is being squeezed and most Americans think our country is going in the “wrong direction.” Fareed Zakaria, writing in Time Magazine’s current cover story, believes that to recapture the ‘American Dream’ our country will have to accept the changing nature of the world and adapt by renewing our investment in advanced education and innovation.

It is important to remember that recent American prosperity is not simply a product of an innovative American spirit — a point Zakaria beautifully made a year ago on the cover of Newsweek in which he cited a report by the Breakthrough Institute. Zakaria points to three factors that facilitated America’s unprecedented economic prosperity throughout the last half century. The end of WWII posed a unique opportunity for America — much of the industrial world laid in ruins and of the war’s victors only the U.S. remained mostly unscathed .  America took full advantage of the opportunity, providing sanctuary for the world’s greatest minds while simultaneously investing vast sums in education and technological innovation, primarily through R&D.

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Steven Hayward, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and co-author of the “Post-Partisan Power” report, has a new article in The Weekly Standard that makes the conservative case for a federal energy innovation agenda.  Hayward’s independent analysis is a must-read for conservatives advocates and indicates a strong bipartisan consensus point for energy policy reform.

Is there a way for government to adopt an energy policy that avoids wasting money on inferior energy sources and unproductive laboratory research and that could gain bipartisan support in today’s bitterly polarized climate? There just might be.

Hayward summarizes the report’s recommendations, including $25 billion per year of federal investment in clean energy science, education, R&D, and procurement designed to drive down the price of low-carbon energy technologies.  Anticipating potential concerns from fellow conservatives, Hayward writes:

No doubt critics will say this level of state involvement in promoting technological innovation doesn’t sound very Reaganite, but they are wrong. Just as Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative was intended to be a long-range game changer rather than just another weapons system, this energy strategy is intended to reestablish the United States as the global leader in energy innovation and potentially upend the geopolitics of energy.

He continues:

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The Next Bipartisan Energy Agenda

Published by National Journal
Energy & Environment Expert Blog

By Teryn Norris
October 14, 2010

Only a couple short months after the demise of cap and trade, a new bipartisan flag for national energy and climate reform has officially been flown. It stands as a report released yesterday called “Post-Partisan Power” by scholars at three major U.S. think tanks – including the conservative American Enterprise Institute, the centrist Brookings Institution, and the Breakthrough Institute – and represents a powerful new rallying point for U.S. clean energy and climate advocates of all stripes.

The heart of the plan is to overhaul the U.S. energy innovation system with strategic federal investments in clean energy, on the scale of $25 billion annually, to rapidly drive down the cost of low-carbon energy technologies for deployment in the U.S. and abroad. Based on the same federal model that developed microchips, the Internet, and numerous other technological breakthroughs, the investment would easily pay for itself in economic growth and increased federal tax revenue.

The bipartisan approach is already receiving widespread recognition as representing perhaps the only serious and viable alternative to cap and trade. As David Leonhardt wrote in the New York Times, “To put it another way, the death of cap and trade doesn’t have to mean the death of climate policy. The alternative revolves around much more, and much better organized, financing for clean energy… It’s an idea with a growing list of supporters, a list that even includes conservatives – most of whom opposed cap and trade.”

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A New Era of “Post-Partisan Power”?

Written by Daniel Goldfarb and Clifton YinPost-Partisan Power Thumbnail-thumb-200x257

Post-Partisan Power,” a report released today by the unlikely triumvirate of the Breakthrough Institute, American Enterprise Institute, and Brookings Institution, provides the most compelling argument to date for a bipartisan energy agenda.  National hyper partisanship has made it difficult to bring the right and left together on any issue.  But the death of cap and trade this summer provides a renewed opportunity for a united American energy agenda. The report’s press release lays out a list of policy goals that both sides of the aisle can get behind:

“The new report calls for increasing federal innovation investment from roughly $4 today to $25 billion annually, and using military procurement, new, disciplined deployment incentives, and public-private hubs to achieve both incremental improvements and breakthroughs in clean energy technologies.”

Most Americans can agree on the appeal of innovating clean energy technologies, creating new jobs in America, staving off environmental catastrophe, and freeing our nation from dependence on foreign sources of energy.  Where cap and trade went wrong was insisting that these goals could only be accomplished by raising the price of carbon emitting energy sources.  But not only was cap and trade not the only means of accomplishing these goals, according to the New York Times’s assessment of “Post-Partisan Power”, it may not have even been the most effective:

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“The Marines Go Green” and Civilians Gain

A good deal has been written about the military’s recent efforts to “go green,” but Fred Kaplan’s piece for Slate last week is unique in its exploration of the potential civilian benefits of such an initiative. Kaplan does well to delineate the military’s history as a robust market for innovative technologies, driving up demand and down costs:

“In the last half-century, many of the United States’ great technological breakthroughs have been made possible because of the demand created by large-scale government projects—which, in this country, has mainly meant military and space projects… In this same way, the military’s demand for renewable-energy technologies today could create the conditions for a wide commercial market in the years ahead.”

Also important is his recognition of the policy advantages of housing such large scale projects within the Department of Defense.  Whereas Department of Energy programs face financial uncertainty, see ARPA-E, DoD programs enjoy long term funding because of the uniquely insulated nature of defense spending.

Policy stability is currently one of the foremost concerns of the U.S. clean energy industry.  With crucial stimulus initiatives set to expire and no new energy bills on the horizon, the military could be one of the few places for the clean energy industry to turn.   As the Breakthrough Institute noted yesterday, military funding for the “advanced demonstration and early commercialization of promising clean energy technologies, particularly those with dual-use military applications,” may be essential in the near future.  It is the dual nature of DoD work – that its technology initiatives regularly benefit the national defense and civilian economy – that gives the DoD its unique freedoms.  In the past, Kaplan shows, the DoD’s unique attributes have allowed it to house long term and capital intensive projects when others were unwilling or unable:

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Yesterday, in an article titled “China’s Global Dominance in Green Jobs Growing,” Reuters reported on Clean Edge’s latest “Clean Tech Job Trends 2010.”  The report yet again confirms China’s growing dominance in clean tech industries, due in large part to direct federal investment:

China is prevailing in the global race for green jobs in sectors from solar panels to advanced lighting, and appears to be on an unstoppable upward path, an annual report by cleantech research firm Clean Edge said on Wednesday.

The Chinese government spent $34.6 billion last year to propel its low-carbon economy, more than any other nation and almost double what the U.S. invested. The country is now headquarters for six of the biggest renewable energy employers—up from three in 2008—according to Clean Tech Job Trends 2009.

The report follows several reports on the clean energy race in the past year, including “Rising Tigers, Sleeping Giant,” but gives more attention to clean energy jobs.  According to the report, “Total jobs surpassed three million in 2009, recent data from global research group REN 21 finds. China accounted for 700,000 of that amount, due in large part to measures that promote solar heating.”

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The Military’s Clean Energy Imperative

By Daniel Goldfarb and Adam Sieff

When does inaction on energy reform go too far?  When it risks our nation’s economic health?  When it leads our planet towards environmental catastrophe? Surely we must draw a line when it puts American soldiers directly in harms way. A recent New York Times article suggests that the military has seen enough, and in the absence of Congressional action, is taking the lead on developing clean energy technologies.

This new role for the military should come as no surprise. The Department of Defense is the largest single consumer of energy in the United States. In 2007, it consumed 1,100 trillion BTU’s—more than the entire country of Nigeria and at a higher per-capita rate than all but three countries in the world. The DoD further estimates that for every $10 increase in the per barrel price of oil, it costs the militairy $1.3 billion.  At the same time, energy is the key enabler of US military combat power.   American military force is tethered to increasingly vulnerable fuel supplies: “In Iraq and Afghanistan, one Army study found, for every 24 fuel convoys that set out, one soldier or civilian engaged in fuel transport was killed.”

While much ink has been spilled on the strategic disadvantage of America’s reliance on fossil fuels, and that we fund a number of adversarial nations, until recently the tactical dangers have not gotten their due attention.  Fossil fuels aren’t just forcing our military into geo-strategic wars, but also putting our soldiers at risk in the field of combat:

“Concerns about the military’s dependence on fossil fuels in far-flung battlefields began in 2006 in Iraq, where Richard Zilmer, then a major general and the top American commander in western Iraq, sent an urgent cable to Washington suggesting that renewable technology could prevent loss of life.”

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In his latest weekly address, President Obama made a strong case for clean energy as a critical national growth industry, highlighted the success of the Recovery Act in advancing the U.S. solar industry, and warned about the potential outcome of mid-term elections:

Our future as a nation depends on making sure that the jobs and industries of the 21st century take root here in America.  And there is perhaps no industry with more potential to create jobs now – and growth in the coming years – than clean energy.

…we’ve seen companies produce new energy technologies and high-skilled jobs not in America, but in countries like China, India and Germany. It is essential – for our economy, our security, and our planet – that we finally tackle this challenge.  That is why, since we took office, my administration has made an historic commitment to promote clean energy technology.

…Now there are some in Washington who want to shut them down.  In fact, in the Pledge they recently released, the Republican leadership is promising to scrap all the incentives for clean energy projects, including those currently underway – even with all the jobs and potential that they hold.

This address comes during political primetime for President Obama during mid-term elections, and it builds on a recent interview with Rolling Stone suggesting a new way forward on energy and climate policy next year.  Watch it here:

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By Alex Trembath. Originally posted at Energetics.

In a recent interview with Rolling Stone, President Obama addressed the failed climate/energy attempt of this summer, promising to move forward with a reinvigorated agenda in 2011. However, any such action will likely bear little resemblance to previous attempts. Mr. Obama conceded that “we may have to end up having to do it in chunks, as opposed to some sort of comprehensive legislation.” If this is indeed going to be the form of a new course of action on climate/energy for Mr. Obama, commentators are beginning to wonder exactly what those “chunks” will be.

Never mind the fact that the most recent attempts at energy reform have been piece-meal to begin with–that’s more or less inevitable with so many regulations, markets, fuels, interest groups and players at stake. Before its total dismantling, the American Power Act (formerly Kerry-Graham-Lieberman) was a hodge-podge of cap-and-trade, tax incentives and subsidies for renewables and clean coal technology, loan guarantees for next-generation nuclear power production, and a slew of regulatory reforms to preempt state action of GHGs and promote energy efficiency. Of course that bill never came close to a floor vote in the Senate, but my point stands: a “comprehensive” bill would have to be built one brick at a time anyway, so maybe Obama’s explicit “chunks” approach will get the job done.

So what’s on the table this time around? And, more importantly, what can pass a divided Congress? (more…)