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"Renewable energy becomes fodder for the culture war at just the wrong moment"

3 min. read

The following article is cross-posted from the Las Vegas Sun with permission of the author, J. Patrick Coolican.

There’s no point hiding from it, especially in Nevada: The clean energy movement, despite rapid gains in recent years, faces a potential crisis as government support withers.

I can hear the cheering from many conservatives, whose latest foray into identity politics is contempt for clean energy (more on that later) while either ignorantly or willfully ignoring decades of massive government support for fossil fuels and hydroelectric power such as the Hoover Dam.

But let’s turn to the crisis at hand, which was recently laid bare in a report from the Brookings Institution, the Breakthrough Institute andWorld Resources Institute, “Beyond Boom & Bust: Putting clean tech on a path to subsidy independence.”

By 2014, federal clean tech spending will decline 75 percent, from a high of $44.3 billion in 2009. Absent new policy action, money for deployment of clean energy technology will decline nearly 80 percent. And by the end of 2014, 70 percent of federal policies that promote clean energy industries will have expired.

The boom-and-bust cycle in clean energy has happened before, as a new generation realizes its reliance on foreign fossil fuels is dangerous and so invests in domestic clean energy, only to pull the plug a few years later. Without action — not just maintaining at least some of the money but also more strategic policies — we’re headed for another bust cycle, including bankruptcies, consolidation and market contractions, according to the report.

That’s the bad news. The good news is that the past few years have brought significant successes. Renewable electricity generation doubled from 2006 to 2011, according to the report. The price of wind, solar and other clean energy technologies fell — often dramatically. Employment in the sector rose 12 percent — that’s 70,000 jobs — from 2007 to 2010 despite the recession.

The price reductions are not enough to put clean energy on competitive footing with fossil fuels, especially given the natural gas boom and its collapse in price.

The report recommends some continued government support while calling for reforms so that money spurs further technological improvement and price declines. “Unfortunately, clean tech deployment policies today often closely resemble crop supports, offering a flat production subsidy for any clean energy produced, rather than the demanding military procurement policies that delivered steady improvements and the eventual mass-adoption of everything from radios, microchips, and jet engines, to gas turbines, lasers and computers,” the report says.

The report also notes that clean energy is nowhere close to parity when it comes to federal research dollars: We spend $19 billion on space research and exploration, $34 billion on health research and $81 billion on defense research, but just $4.7 billion per year on clean energy research.

Does this make sense?

There are other strong ideas in the report, backed by data, and I recommend you check it out.

Unfortunately, I have a difficult time imagining a rational energy policy going forward because the conservative movement has made opposition to clean energy — opposition sometimes backed by fossil fuel dollars — a new mission.

(Let me quickly point out: When they bark about government subsidies, they ignore the aforementioned huge subsidies for fossil fuels now and especially in the past. When they rightfully condemn some of the waste of the government’s clean energy programs, they also ignore the massive waste routinely reported out of the Pentagon. Just at random, here’s a New York Times story about a government auditor finding that management failures added at least $70 billion to projected costs of major defense projects during the past two years. That’s billion with a “b.”

And of course they discount the scientific consensus on global climate change.)

For conservatives, renewable energy seems to have become another front in the culture war, as much emotional as empirical. Like gay marriage and National Public Radio and California and President Barack Obama, they find clean energy repugnant.

Once you arrive at that stage of conservative opposition, you have almost no chance of reversing it.