A Look At Bush Administration Policies Regarding Renewable Energy

The Bush Administration’s first term has been a very mixed bag regarding renewable energy policies. Administrations are not monolithic, and are composed of conflicting actions, personalities, and reservations (or inactions). The attempt of this article, is to have a frank review of the statements, activities, nuances and voids by the Administration.

I think it is important to know that aside from serving as Executive Director simultaneously for the solar and biomass-electric trade associations in Washington, D.C. for 15 years, I served as Congressional staff to Senator Jacob Javits (R-NY) for nine years, and have been a registered lobbyist for over 20 years. Rhetoric – The Department of Energy research, development and demonstration programs (RD&D) have not been harshly cut, and the politically-appointed Assistant Secretary is a solid and articulate professional. His focus has been to drive better program management and control, which they have succeeded. But other than the Hydrogen Initiative, which is not a “renewable” energy initiative, there have been virtually no new proposals or programs. Most of the energy innovation regarding technology validation and deployment is supported by ambitious state government programs which have amassed over US$3 billion to allocate over the next few years. While the national laboratory programs are quite valuable on pure research, the U.S. Congress has stepped in to direct more and more of the federal renewable energy RD&D budget to make it more responsive and practical (which does always have that intended effect). Additionally, a greater percentage of the renewable energy budget does not actually go to renewable energy (at least a third of the $300 million plus budget) which is a trend began with the Clinton Administration. Cheney and backers of the GOP – The Vice President is the “leader” on energy issues within the Bush Administration, and the President’s Energy Plan was coordinated out of his office. He is passionate supporter of fossil and nuclear power and the doctrine of “lowest cost energy, environment be damned.” The input and influence of the natural gas, petroleum, coal and nuclear industries as well as the electric utilities and automotive industries was profound. Contrary to media reports, the Vice President’s staff did meet with the energy efficiency and renewable energy community – but not at the level, detail and frequency of the traditional energy interests. This feature of energy dialogue was in sharp contrast with the Administration of Bush senior and the Clinton Administration – both which encouraged ongoing and continuous high level input on renewable energy. The President, in promoting his National Energy Policy, visited a hydropower and waste energy facility months back to show he supported renewables. Many of us were surprised at the reluctance to actively promote ALL renewables since as Texas Governor, The President signed one of the first State renewable Energy Portfolio Standards (RPS) which has been a boon to the U.S. wind industry. When photovoltaics (PV) were installed last year on some buildings on The White House grounds, they issued no press release and had “no comment” when asked by the media. Energy Bill – Aside from tax incentives, the Administration did not want to engage in promoting meaningful national interconnection standards for both transmission and distribution, as well as net metering. Nor did the Administration endorse a national Renewable Energy Portfolio Standard since it was adamantly opposed by the electric utility industry whose trade association (EEI) is run by the former Yale roommate of the President. Budget – Under the “first” Bush presidency, all energy was viewed as important and all were pushed equally. The energy bill passed within George Bush Senior’s presidency included tax credits and commercialization programs for renewable energy – and was in stark contrast to the Reagan Administration which tried to close the renewable energy programs down. The Clinton Administration added some funding and proposed several key initiatives as a way to promote renewable energy use. The Administration of George W Bush has only proposed a hydrogen initiative, generally with no “new” funds but cobbled together from various programs. While administered by the U.S. Department of Energy Renewable Energy Program, the Hydrogen RD&D program focuses on hydrogen resources from coal, nuclear, natural gas and some renewables – meaning that is really isn’t a pure (or major) renewable program at all. Tax Credits – The Bush Administration has supported extension of the wind and closed loop biomass Production Tax Credit and residential investment tax credit for solar thermal and photovoltaic applications. Congress eventually passed a watered-down version the measures in the most recent tax cut package which the Bush Administration since signed into law. Wind power and geothermal made out fine, but the residential solar tax credit was dropped and the value of the PTC for solar and biomass were almost negated. While the White House messages to Congress didn’t placed these incentives as their highest priorities, neither did they try and trade them away. Good news –Department of Interior and Agriculture – two agencies have stood out as strong backers of renewable energy at the political level. Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Lugar established a renewable energy program within USDA (9006) and the political appointee to the Rural Utility Service, one of the largest federal loan programs (for agricultural cooperatives) has set-aside a multi-hundred million window for renewable energy projects. Interior Secretary Norton led a very high profile program to remove barriers for renewable energy on federal lands – which could have high benefits for concentrated solar power, geothermal, hydropower, and wind farms – as well as distributed generations in parks, forest lands, and in Native American tribal lands. Where’s the beef? – The Bush Administration proposed an energy policy and expressed Administration energy philosophy as ideological – sought to paint Democrats as wanting high energy prices, advocated drilling in the Alaskan Wildlife Reserve as the symbolic essential ingredient, allowed coal plants that were grandfathered in by the 1970 Clean Air Act to continue non-compliance, changed rules to allow the coal industry to blow-up mountain tops and leave their debris in the rivers and streams, and essentially maintain as much (as possible) low energy prices no matter what their impact was on U.S. energy security or global environment. Renewable energy was not espoused as a “much needed element” of energy policy, but rather necessary to show balance and enlist farm and key legislators promoting primarily ethanol, hydropower, and wind farms. Stark contrasts within the Republican Party – While senior White House energy policymakers seem to marginalize renewable energy and energy efficiency, high-profile Republican Governors Arnold Schwarzenegger (California) and George Pataki (New York) are avid pro-renewable energy proponents – each advocating 20 percent renewable energy portfolio standards and ambitious deployment programs – all far exceeding the federal government. Senate Finance Committee Chairman Charles Grassley (R-IA) and House Science Committee Chairman Sherwood Boehlert (R-NY) are strong renewable energy advocates. But they are overshadowed by Senate and House leaders who clearly espouse a fossil and nuclear mantra as much more important to the Republican Party, the U.S. economy, and security. The Clinton perspective – Now to be fair, while the Clinton Administration’s rhetoric was very ambitious on behalf of renewable energy, many of the programs were never funded or adequately administered. But the “bully pulpit” of the Presidency is very powerful, and as strong as Vice President Dick Cheney promotes a “drill for oil everywhere” energy policy, Clinton Vice President Al Gore espoused energy efficiency and renewable energy as one of his highest priorities in the prior Administration. The Bottom-line – If you accept former President Harry Truman’s line “the buck stops here”, I have to paste a “C minus” as an overall evaluation, or maybe a “D plus”. U.S. energy imports have grown past 60 percent and U.S. energy customers have record price spikes in petroleum and natural gas which have hurt the economy. The wind and biomass tax credits were allowed to lapse, and while the U.S. Congress shares the blame, the Administration could have instructed the House and Senate leadership to NOT let this happen. But the worse fault, beyond actual policy implementation, is no “bully pulpit” either. President Bush has been afraid to pronounce the word “solar” and has even expressed skepticism personally to foreign leaders. There is no articulated “vision” for renewables within the Bush Administration and no drive for expansion, acceleration, or even acclimation. About the author… The Stella Group, Ltd. is a strategic marketing and policy firm advancing the utilization of clean, distributed energy applications such as advanced batteries and controls, energy efficiency, fuel cells, heat engines, microhydropower, minigeneration, modular biomass, photovoltaics, small wind and solar thermal (air-conditioning, water and industrial process heat, and power generation); with blended financing and customer facilitation. Scott Sklar, the Group’s founder and president, lives in a solar home in Arlington, Virginia and his coauthored book, A Consumer Guide to Solar Energy, was just re-released in 2003 for its third printing. He can be reached at solarsklar@aol.com.
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