It’s always interesting to get out and interact with different groups who have specific perspectives on the energy industry. And, to that end, I’ve commited to a certain travel schedule that will take me — either as a speaker or as a participant — to a decent number of conferences over the next 12 months.
I enjoyed my trip to Boston earlier in the week, in which I listened to talks and spoke with the engineers at the IEEE Energy Innovation show (though they use the word “innovation” in a far different way than you or I; many of the presentations were so dry that some of their own people visibly had trouble staying awake).
But, even though I like working through the technology of renewables, I find the business practicalities far more interesting. At the end of the day, the precise photovoltaic wave form produced by a breakthrough voltage regulator doesn’t matter if large PV projects can’t get financed and remain dormant at the proposal stage.
By contrast, the Renewable Energy Finance Forum is a conference with dozens of different big ideas on which I’d like to present in a short series of posts.
The first such “big idea” is that we talked extensively about subsidies for renewables: the future of the Section 1603 cash grant, fixing the broken program of loan guarantees, and especially, carbon legislation. For instance, many of the presentations included (parenthetically) the idea that we need a pollution tax. The concept was an unaccented, glossed-over bullet on many of today’s presentations. But no one even thought of bringing up what I see as the major issue facing the industry: subsidies for fossil fuels are 12 times larger than they are for renewables, making the latter relatively expensive. We’re so concerned about the minutiae of financial modeling, and we spend days working through the details — but if we had a level playing field, all of this accounting mumbo jumbo would be moot; clean energy would be hailed as the deal of the century — and all the laywers and accountants would be whisked out of the way.
I ask a few of the presenters about this, including two of the brightest people I’ve ever met: Dan Reicher, Director of Energy and Climate Change Initiatives at Google, and Lisa Frantzis, Managing Director for Renewable and Distributed Energy from Navigant Consulting.
Reicher told me, “Well, of course, if you wanted to pull this apart and make this whole thing right, that’s obviously the very first thing you would do.” But he clearly regarded our conversation as uninteresting. What was he doing wasting his time with some sort of idealist? Was I a leftover hippie — a relic of the 1960s or something?
When she saw where I was going, Frantzis simply smiled and said, “Oh, I see what you mean. You’re right, but that’s politics.”
Indeed. That’s the politics of big energy — the force has so completely hamstrung the migration to renewables. It was truly one of the big ideas of the day, perhaps only as the elephant in the room — an idea so big that no one can bear to bring it up.