Clean Energy Policy Debate: Let’s Agree to Agree!

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Plug-in hybrid electric vehicle (PHEV) diagramAnyone watching the health care debate spread from Capitol Hill conference rooms to town halls nationwide knows that everyone agrees we need health care reform. The disagreement comes in determining what kind. Comprehensive tort reform fits under the heading and so would the implementation of a single-payer system, but the two solutions could not be much farther apart on the political spectrum. An apt analogy – as the summer vacation season comes to a close – may be the good old fashioned American road trip: the whole family knows the destination, but getting there is the tough part.

Policymakers, entrepreneurs, and F500 companies around the world are finding the same challenges in energy policy reform. And while the health care debate has taken on all of the melodrama and polemic one might expect from any topic that merits mention on former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin’s Facebook page, a more measured and thoughtful approach to energy policy reform would pay dividends for business, society and the planet.

The stumbling blocks come when moving from goal setting to implementation. That phase is rife with conflict, as commitment to the common goal meets with entrenchment, and progress becomes victim to compromise. There are philosophical disagreements even within the community of the most hardcore green power boosters (commercial scale renewable versus broad DG). Technology always poses a sort of arms race (i.e, PV, thin-film, wafer) as each step forward in policy progress can have the ancillary impact of threatening to kick off a sort of BetaMax/VHS platform war. That is not to say that there is even agreement on which renewable sources we should be harvesting (Wind or solar? Arizona and North Dakota give very different answers). Finally, resource conflicts also pose a problem (Should desert dwellers have to accommodate solar arrays that capture sun to power far-off Metro areas?)

All of this is to say of nothing of the actual market-based competition that is happening out in the field: between companies and their products for market share (a Vestas blade or GE?); between competing companies for financing (VC and stimulus both); and, between states or different energy producing regions who want to capture the revenue inherent in the shift away from coal and petroleum-based energy production, each in their own way.

Part of the problem is the tone and tenor of policy-making in the US right now… so much for post-partisanship. But, it is not only the two major political parties that are at each other’s throats, the default-to-conflict model is at work all the way down to the community level (click on over to EnergyWorks later to read about our model of working backwards from consensus rather than putting policy through the implementation meat grinder first).

As I wrote last week, in the face of a difficult economy and flagging support for clean energy when placed in an energy versus economy showdown, too many false starts on energy policy could further undermine and delay progress. For example, in an interesting Op-Ed in last week’s Boston Globe, two MIT professors argue that we are leaning far too heavily on electric vehicles as a panacea. Arguing that the technological challenges, integration difficulties, range limitations and even the environmental benefits are not as advertised (yet), they go on to recommend:

“Perhaps more important, the United States needs policies that will incentivize the lowest cost solutions for reducing vehicles’ greenhouse gas emissions and petroleum consumption, instead of targeting the adoption of specific technologies. It is hard to predict what role electric vehicles will ultimately play. Electricity’s potential to displace petroleum and diversify transportation’s source of energy is one of the more promising options. However, realizing the benefits of electric vehicles will depend on relative costs, consumer preferences, and sustained policy commitments. Transforming the current stampede into a more measured and rational approach may be the key to continuing the march toward electricity and greener transportation.”

Their point is well-taken. Geography is critical in the clean energy policy debate. Different states have different resource blends, politics, technological capabilities and infrastructure. There is no one-size-fits-all solution for American clean energy reform. In lieu of broad resource-specific or technology-specific grants that will inherently result in the designation of winners and losers, federal policy should drive load-serving entities to integrate renewables, vehicle manufacturers to cut emissions, and building owners to beef up efficiency, but to do so in the way that works best for them. After all, the end goals enjoy near-unanimous support, but like Chevy Chase’s ride in the Holiday Rambler — it is in getting there that you run into problems.

[photo credit: Flickr]

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  1. Agreeing to agree is a very important first step towards shaking off the shackles of the energy industry and becoming self-reliant in our quest for energy independence. Different applications will suit different geographic locations better than others, and by doing proper resource assessments one can quickly determine which horse will be the optimum one for which course. We just all have to agree that we all agree first! I like it, sounds like a good foundation to work from.

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