These are the days for clean tech observers and professionals. Our most innovative companies are finally bringing game-changing technologies to market and into competitive parity on cost. The political will that has been lacking for decades seems to be gaining critical mass. Even corporate America seems to be on board with making a profitable shift to a green economy.
Still, it’s not all rosy in the green tech picture. Getting climate change legislation through the house was a bloodsport and, as previously noted on the CleanTechies Blog, the Senate looks increasingly unlikely to put anything substantial on the President’s desk this year. And that is just the new policy. Around the country, existing policies designed to enable clean energy adoption are floundering, and even with all of the aforementioned momentum, in a down economy policy makers cannot afford too many false starts.
The problems are rearing their head in every arena, even the most well-established and widely-accepted policy areas like the Renewable Portfolio Standard and other green power option programs. Last week, Austin Energy, the Texas utility announced that it still had more than 97% (that is not a typo) of its green power option capacity unsold. They attributed the slow sales to rising prices and the down economy, but the wrinkle is in what happens next. Since the green power option is a regulator-approved program, Austin Energy is entitled to receive full compensation for the green power they had to go out and secure on the forward market, even if premium sales under the program do not cover that cost. That means that every ratepayer is on the hook for the cost.
This is just one example of the unintended consequences that can occur when we are so anxious to adopt green programs that we make policy on the fly. The same sort of problems have been reported by CleanTechies and other leading green media channels in recent weeks with public charging stations for plug-in EVs. On their face, the stations are good for everyone involved: the utilities like the demand, consumers like the convenience, and manufacturers like that the stations enable even the less passionate consumer to seriously consider a plug-in, and cities like the proactive “green” positioning. But, no one wants to pay for the power. And, who owns the equipment? How will the system integrate with existing utility infrastructure?
This is not dissimilar from the hurdles facing large-scale integration of renewable power in the US. We have innovation and investment lined up around the block for mega-scale wind and solar, so why isn’t the clean power coming online? Transmission capacity is insufficient and we can’t get new lines built.
The US isn’t alone in confronting the transmission hurdle. A Reuters story reprinted in the Boston Globe last week discussed Greece’s problems with bringing renewables online. The problem in Greece? According to government officials quoted in the story, its policy:
“Greece is notorious for its long licensing procedure…estimated at three to four years on average. The government has just passed a zoning law for renewables as well as approved new incentives for individuals to install solar panels on rooftops and sell the electricity, doing away with a licensing process that used to cost thousands of euros. Within the next two months, it plans to submit a law to shorten procedures for wind farms and small hydroelectric plants.”
No telling where that process will go, or what the new policy will really mean for investment and adoption, but until then the country will continue to rely on power from dust and smoke spewing power plants run off of the lignite that is strip-mined from the Greek countryside.
An industry that has always been hamstrung by pie-in-the-sky aspirations is now being crippled by a failure to deliver on the nitty-gritty (which is not to say that pie-in-the-sky is not still pulling too much of the attention and investment).
Here’s hoping that some of clean tech’s brightest minds and greatest innovators of the next generation will put aside the quest for the next killer app and take up the challenge on the public policy side. If the climate change fight is as grave a challenge as advertised then it is not too strained a comparison to say that what clean tech needs now are the kind of understated heroes that emerged in the civil rights fights of the 50’s and 60’s. We have our MLKs and JFKs, what we need now is a Thurgood Marshall. Is she out there?
[photo credit: Flickr]