Comity or Tragedy?

As a community, the sustainable energy sector often does not play well together. Sure, everyone talks about supporting ally organizations, but the truth seems otherwise. The increasing inability to cooperate is a trend that has become pronounced at the national level in recent years. From my perspective, the loss of community is bad for the sector and could prove so for the nation.

Community Coming Undone An excellent organization that increasingly demonstrates the community’s dysfunction is the Sustainable Energy Coalition (SEC). The coalition is a group of more than 30 organizations, including the American Solar Energy Society (ASES), Solar Energy Industries Association, the Alliance to Save Energy and the Union of Concerned Scientists. SEC’s relatively small budget is comprised of dues from member organizations, a grant from the Energy Foundation and other activities. Its tiny budget funds one employee, who is both coordinator and staff. There are three classes of membership: governing groups, which generally are national organizations, and nongoverning groups, classified as D.C.- or non-D.C.-based organizations. To act under the name of the coalition requires a simple majority of governing board members. A corporate act of the SEC could be anything from a press release urging Congress to appropriate budget funds for a solar program to sponsoring a technology exposition on Capitol Hill that allows members of Congress to “kick the tires” of real products. In short, the SEC represents a collective voice for sustainable energy organizations. For years, the SEC has filled the all-important need of being the community center, the one place where members would come together regularly to trade information and implement some type of collective strategy. In the SEC, it has been the hope of actually working together on at least a few things basic to each organization – things like supporting congressional caucuses on energy efficiency and renewable energy – that has kept ASES and others coming back. Despite the gargantuan effort of its chief cook and bottle washer, the group barely musters a quorum at its monthly business meetings. Each day, SEC has more difficulty in obtaining the minimum number of signatures needed to issue a press release. There are many reasons why community efforts like the SEC are going the way of the dodo bird. Unlike the oil or nuclear energy industries, for example, the sustainable energy sector comprises various technologies and interests. The lack of technological homogeneity can cause conflict in the policy arena, as well as in the market. Conflicts between environmental organization representatives and their often more conservative counterparts at trade groups or professional societies also result in periodic disagreement. Another dividing factor is that different technologies often find themselves at different points on the commercialization continuum. The need of one is not always the need of the other. Given that there are only a limited number of wishes granted to sustainable energy technologies by the “powers that be,” it is understandable that there will be times when one industry prefers not to use one of its allotted wishes in support of an allied industry. Even differences within organizations can defeat the ability of the SEC to gain enough signatures to act. A governing organization may face internal conflicts on an issue, preventing it from taking a stand. Certainly there have been times when I could not add ASES’ name to the list of signatories because the policy committee or board was divided on the matter. Then there are those times when the groups simply cannot reach consensus on an issue. Division over the 2004 energy bill is one of the more glaring examples – and one likely to recur with the 2005 bill. Divided We Fall The occasional lack of comity is understandable. The increasing lack of community is not. I am worried about the disintegration of the community on a number of counts. While most are obvious – including a solid community’s strength in numbers, leveraging of resources, greater political reach and increased visibility in the market of power-producing or -saving products and designs – others are not. With the loss of community comes the rise of unchecked independent action. What’s wrong with independent action? In principle, nothing. In practice, however, independent action tends to favor one’s bottom line over everyone’s interest. As a community, we say technological diversity is to be desired. As a community of technologies who see value in working together, we have to say such things – otherwise, nothing would ever get said. As an individual, I believe diversity (of energy sources, plant and animal species, etc.) is good, and that through diversity, societies and species remain strong. Given my personal beliefs and professional experiences, I am not a big fan of unchecked independent action. What’s good for GM may or may not be good for the country. This position applies equally to any single member of the sustainable energy sector. I just feel more comfortable when the determination of what is “good” is not determined solely by the company that stands to gain the most from the statement, but rather, is based on common interests. As a community, we seek to convince regulators to adopt nondiscriminatory interconnection standards. As individuals, we are more likely to limit our arguments to the standard that guarantees access for our products. I am not suggesting that individual technologies don’t have the right to make their case, nor that they are wrong or selfish for doing so. I am suggesting, however, that the loss of community, comity and concerted action by a broad-based coalition of sustainable energy-sector organizations risks less inclusive public policies. Divided, we risk discouraging the technological diversity that will be required to meet this nation’s energy and environmental challenges. This article originally appeared in the July/August 2005 issue of Solar Today from the American Solar Energy Society (ASES) Joel B. Stronberg is the American Solar Energy Society’s representative in Washington, D.C. Contact him at the JBS Group, 540.668.6865 or
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