In the wake of the disappointment over the death of cap and trade, the U.S. clean energy movement was given much needed direction and focus at the December 15th Energy Innovation 2010 conference at the National Press Club.  Hosted by the Information Technology & Innovation Foundation and Breakthrough Institute, and co-sponsored by several other think tanks, the conference highlighted a variety of critical issues for forging a new national energy consensus.

The conference demonstrated strong and growing consensus on the need for increased federal investment in clean energy RD&D (see AEL’s previous coverage), but there was also debate about the merits of allocating resources to innovation or to implementation of existing technology. Keynote speaker Nobel Laureate Dr. Burton Richter argued forcefully for innovation as well as implementation, particularly shutting down coal fired power plants in favor of natural gas plants. Gas offers a cleaner electricity option than coal and is set to experience a major boom due to new extraction methods.

Moreover, breakthrough clean energy technologies may be available one day, but most technologies take decades to become widely adapted.  Dr. William Bonvillian discussed other technological revolutions and the long timeframe necessary for an innovative idea to turn into commercially deployable technology.  In the mean time, Department of Energy Assistant Secretary for Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy Cathy Zoi pointed out the massive potential for energy savings from conservation and efficiency measures.

Fortunately, President Obama signed legislation on December 17th, extending the clean energy tax credits originally provided by the 2009 Recovery Act. The credit is supporting more than 4,000 clean energy projects. More aggressive policy of this sort will both increase renewable energy’s contribution in America and create clean energy jobs. Furthermore it will encourage manufacturing innovations, which will bring down costs in the long term.

Another topic on the agenda was the need to reframe the national energy debate. Talking about climate change has become politically toxic in many parts of the country; votes for the cap-and-trade bill may have cost some Democrats in the midterm election. Both sides of the political aisle must be supportive in order to pass meaningful legislation in the current Congress. “Techno-nationalism” is the most politically palatable way of advocating for energy innovation; American energy independence and the need to lead the clean energy economy and are two bipartisan ways of talking about clean energy.

American energy independence has been on the political agenda ever since the 1970s oil shocks encouraged President Jimmy Carter to ask Americans to turn down their thermostats. Unfortunately, little progress has been made. Wildly fluctuating oil prices and the obvious geopolitical costs of our oil dependency have given the issue renewed political saliency. Dr. Richter, Roger Pielke, and Ted Nordhaus all mentioned the cause of energy independence as a political ally for climate change advocates.

By emphasizing common interests and goals, both the energy independence and climate change movements can gain from the alliance. A recent New York Times article cited an example of people in rural Kansas who adopted energy saving measures when the issue was framed in terms of self-reliance and independence, rather than climate change. The Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) is a good example of how the two interests overlap. New rhetoric is needed to advance the clean energy agenda given how quickly politicians are running away from climate change.

However, the clean energy coalition needs to be clear about what its goals are. While energy independence and climate change have some similar goals, they are not identical. As a WRI report points out, certain policy prescriptions for energy independence have adverse consequences for climate change and vice versa.  Subsidizing corn-based ethanol may make a small dent in America’s oil imports, but replacing oil with this biofuel has no impact on climate change. Advocating for energy independence also leads one to support drilling in Anwar, Alaska and developing technology to exploit American oil shales. Yes, new rhetoric is needed, but energy independence and climate change may prove uneasy bedfellows.

Another aspect of this techno-nationalism is competition between America and East Asian countries over the clean energy market: China is outspending America on clean energy technology. Lost in this debate is the fact that 86% of China’s clean energy spending is on deployment of mature technology, not energy innovation. As a technology innovator, the United States still is in the lead. Additionally, as Steven Hayward pointed out, it is important not to overstate the potential for “green-collar jobs” in America; Van Jones’s vision of tens of thousands of Americans installing solar panels on homes hasn’t been realized.

Nonetheless, the job market in clean energy is important for America’s future competitiveness and an important rhetorical tool given the state of the American economy. Dr. Bonvillian and other panelists compared the green energy industry to biotech, IT and other economy revolutionizing industries; it is imperative that the United States lead this industry both for climate change and national competitiveness reasons. Mark Muro and Devon Swezey cited the importance of regional hubs in encouraging innovation; manufacturing centers often become centers of innovation, and manufacturing competitiveness is linked to advanced manufacturing technologies.

However, one of the major sticking points of the COP meetings in Copenhagen and Cancún has been the issue of technology diffusion from the developed world to the developing world. Cooperation between economic competitors is critical. It is important not to get too caught up in the nationalist rhetoric, lest the larger goal of climate change mitigation be lost.

Despite these caveats, supporting clean energy innovation remains a national imperative. Panelists cited the important role that government has played in past technological revolutions; this one will be no different.

Unfortunately, the current Congress-elect, with its Tea Party backing, is not likely to increase government spending in many departments, especially not anything that is associated with climate change. Congressional staffers Jonathan Epstein and Neil Brown put a damper on the upbeat mood of the conference when they reported the current political realities in the Congress, particularly the House of Representatives. Dramatic change in federal energy policy is not imminent; clean energy advocates must focus on the medium term and carefully changing the rhetoric in the energy debate to create a large base.

Duncan Gromko is a Contributor with Americans for Energy Leadership and currently a Masters candidate at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. Disclaimer: The views expressed are solely those of the author.


2 Responses to “Energy Innovation Conference Offers New Direction”

  1. Alex White says:

    This group I’m following in San Francisco:

    has a “breakthrough” that will produce clean, affordable electricity – less than coal-generated electricity. I’ve only seen part of the technology, but it’s very clever. The industry missed something. They are “ClAirifying” natural gas and it’s 100% clean and will be produced at $.08 per kWh.

    I think economics based on affordable, clean electricity is the best way to retire coal plants.

  2. Colton says:

    Is anyone discussing the role of vested interests in preventing RD&D of new non-fossil energy technologies? Any new insight on this from your short time in DC?

    Great reporting there, always excited to read your new articles.

Leave a Reply