Making Clean Energy Cheap. Spend More, Barack Obama

( – promoted by buhdydharma )

In Wednesday’s Los Angeles Times, eco-contrarians Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger have weighed in again with an essay that deserves a lot of attention. The two first stepped into the limelight four years ago this month with the publication of their paper The Death of Environmentalism: Global Warming Politics in a Post-Environmental World. The flak started bursting before the ink was dry. Bill McKibben labeled them “the bad boys of American environmentalism,” and there were hot critiques by green notables and both alternative and mainstream media. Then, too, quite a lot of praise, both from the left and right.

Three years ago this month, they published the book version of their heretical paper, Breakthrough: From the Death of Environmentalism to the Politics of Possibility. If it could be synopsized into a single sentence, that might be: Though their hearts are in the right place, much of what eco-advocates are doing is wrong and, for everybody’s sake, they need to develop a new paradigm that will create a new, green economy that will ultimately do more to protect the environment that what they’re doing now.

Naturally, some environmentalists had a problem with that argument. But many also agreed with it, or half-agreed. And the debate has been going on ever since. Nordhaus and Shellenberger didn’t just talk, they co-founded the Apollo Alliance in 2003, a union-backed coalition with green-minded people put together with the idea that the right energy plan combined with the right attack on global warming could make for a lot of good things, including a rejuvenation of the well-paying manufacturing sector that continues to bleed jobs overseas. That same year they started the Breakthrough Institute, where the motto is “The Era of Small Thinking is Over.”  

If you ever get to talk to either of them, you’ll immediately notice they seethe with energy. But that’s not all they’re seething about. In their Times piece today, The green bubble bursts, they write:

The most influential environmental groups in Washington — the Natural Resources Defense Council and the Environmental Defense Fund — are continuing to bet the farm on a strategy that relies on emissions limits and other regulations aimed at making fossil fuels more expensive in order to encourage conservation, efficiency and renewable energy. But with an economic recession likely, and energy prices sure to remain high for years to come thanks to expanding demand in China and other developing countries, any strategy predicated centrally on making fossil fuels more expensive is doomed to failure.

A better approach is to make clean energy cheap through technology innovation funded directly by the federal government. In contrast to raising energy prices, investing somewhere between $30 billion and $50 billion annually in technology R&D, infrastructure and transmission lines to bring power from windy and sunny places to cities is overwhelmingly popular with voters. Instead of embracing this big investment, greens and Democrats push instead for tiny tax credits for renewable energy — nothing approaching the national commitment that’s needed.

With just six weeks before the election, the bursting of the green bubble is a wake-up call for Democrats. Environmental groups, perpetually certain that a new ecological age is about to dawn in America, have serially overestimated their strength and misread public opinion. Democrats must break once and for all from green orthodoxy that focuses primarily on making dirty energy more expensive and instead embrace a strategy to make clean energy cheap.

As with just about any essay, it’s best not to rely on an excerpt but click through to the whole shebang to get the full flavor.

Thirty years ago, I took an editor’s post at the freshly minted Solar Energy Research Institute in Golden, Colorado. It was a time heady with hope among green energy advocates. The federal government, sparked by rising prices of oil and the possibility of renewed embargoes over foreign policy, adopted what’s since become known as Jimmy Carter’s energy plan. It was far from perfect. But in it was ample spending for research and development into various alternatives to foreign oil, including renewables. In fact, the amount of money invested in renewables R&D in Carter’s last budget, FY 1981, was four times what each of Mister Bush’s first five budgets contained, when adjusted for inflation.

Ronald Reagan immediately butchered SERI’s budget. When oil prices plunged, interest in renewables waned and decades of potential were lost. Not that there haven’t been major advances in renewable technology and conservation and efficiency. But it’s been a piddle compared with what could have been.

What Shellenberg and Nordhaus are suggesting is more than a double-down. The presidential candidate with the best plan for new energy era is – no surprise – Barack Obama. But even he proposes federal spending of only $150 billion over 10 years. That’s 10% or less than what the Iraq War will end up costing us.

Whatever else one make think of Shellenberger and Nordhaus’s environmental arguments, they’re absolutely right on this score. The federal government needs to invest – not spend – invest three or more times as much in renewable energy R&D and infrastructure as the boldest plan so far put forward by somebody who could make it happen. Not $150 billion, say, but $500 billion. Not a giveaway. An investment in the future. More jobs, more businesses, reduced greenhouse emissions, a more pleasant environment all around. A bargain.  


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    • RiaD on October 1, 2008 at 15:08
  1. Blogosphere wide Green Lobby.

    Whatever bailout they come up with is going to dry up the money, we need to make sure it doesn’t dry up THIS money.

    Nat. Security, jobs, tie it to infrastructure etc. Green is the answer and we need to make sure the PTB don’t take the easy way out….or defeat Obamas good intentions. There is NO better way to spend taxpayers hard earned money.

    Bailout the frikkin planet

  2. …but with the economy in the tank, it seems worthwhile: where does the money to “spend more” come from?

    The financial crisis is about to leave my state seriously in the red for programs such as Medicare.  We will literally be unable to afford a lot of already provided services.  The bond markets are a mess; it is far from certain that we could debt finance considerable expansions of government services.

    As always, environmental issues are not my forte.  All of this sounds perfectly good, but “Spend more” is a sentiment that presently needs a source for that spending.

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