Energy Solutions So Good Even Climate Skeptics Can’t Say No

For all the exciting innovation in clean tech today, debate about energy and climate policies crucial to the market remain stuck in eat-your-vegetables mode. What’s interesting is how some people keep saying no, even as they grab a second helping of spinach.

There’s Rupert Murdoch, of course, whose News Corporation recently went carbon neutral even as the FOX News talking heads rail against climate solutions. But this year’s championship for doing one thing about energy while saying (or paying people to say) another goes to billionaire conservative political financier David Koch.

It turns out the cutting-edge energy-saving technologies used in a new $211 million research lab named in his honor by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology were partly funded through a state program to cut global warming emissions that also happens to be under fierce political attack by one of Koch’s biggest political beneficiaries, the group Americans for Prosperity.

Thanks to smart technologies, the David H. Koch Institute, dedicated earlier this month, will use almost a third less energy than comparable facilities. Everything in the building is designed to maximize efficiency, from lighting and climate controls to the laboratory systems – even the floorplan.

Money for all those extras came through MIT’s $14 million campus-wide partnership with their utility, NSTAR. In just 36 months, they plan to cut the university’s energy use 15 percent – enough to power 4,500 Massachusetts homes for a year. Total lifetime payback is expected to exceed $50 million.

Innovative initiatives like this exist because Massachusetts law requires utilities to pay for efficiency upgrades whenever the energy savings cost less than building the equivalent amount of new generating capacity.

And as it happens, almost a fifth of that money last year came from the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI, or “Reggie”), a program created by 10 Northeast states in 2005 that limits the amount of carbon dioxide utilities can put in the air and collects a small fee – set by quarterly auction – for every ton of they do emit.

It’s a similar story in other the RGGI states, too. The problem is, almost nobody knows it.

That’s because those benefits flow through a tangled network of rebate and incentive programs administered by utilities, state governments and non-profits. As a result, thousands of businesses, families and local communities reap RGGI dividends without knowing it — robbing an effective program of the natural constituency it deserves, and making it easier for groups like Americans for Prosperity to attack.

Thanks to AFP’s aggressive yearlong campaign, the New Hampshire House of Representatives voted to quit RGGI. Senate agreement is expected. The new Republican Governor of Maine wants to follow, and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie recently started hinting he wants to do likewise.

That would be a giant leap in the wrong direction, not just — or even mainly — for the environment, but also those state economies in general, and the clean tech sector in particular.

RGGI costs the average household about 75 cents a month. In return, it pays for upgrades from home weatherization to energy efficient industrial boilers, commercial lighting projects, and rooftop photovoltaic installations on schools and factories (which is how New Jersey became the number two state for solar, by the way).

It provides access to scarce capital and helps reduce operating costs, creating new opportunities for businesses of all sizes, from architects, engineers and programmers to the people in tool belts who bend metal and wire up buildings. That’s business that can’t be outsourced to China.

These investments also save money by avoiding expensive new power plants, and by lowering peaks in demand that drive up electricity prices across the board.

Of $789 million raised by RGGI through last December, more than half went to efficiency projects. Eleven percent went for renewables, and 14 percent to offset bills for low-income families. Less than five percent went for administrative overhead. Those numbers would be even better if New York and New Jersey hadn’t used some proceeds for deficit reduction.

The point of all this is not that David Koch is a hypocrite (in fact there’s no reason to believe he would have known about the funding connection). Rather, it is that if RGGI is good enough for him, it is plenty good for the rest of us.

So, lawmakers, please, pass us another helping of those greens. And keep ‘em coming. 

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Jon Coifman has been providing strategic communications and public affairs counsel to corporate, government and non-profit clients for more than 15 years. An experienced strategist, spokesman and speechwriter, he has appeared on network and cable television, National Public Radio, and in print outlets ranging from the New York Times to People magazine. He writes about environment and energy PR at PositioningGreen.com. Jon is Managing Director and head of the Environment & Clean Technology Practice at PRCG Communications in New York, where he works with a wide variety of business and non-commercial organizations to create solutions-oriented strategies on energy efficiency and renewables, organization branding, carbon policy, and sustainable business. He joined PRCG from Waggener Edstrom Worldwide, one of the largest independent communications firms in the world, where he helped launch the agency’s Social Innovation practice. Prior to that, he served for many years as global media director at the Natural Resources Defense Council, where his work ran the gamut from Supreme Court litigation and a busy legislative calendar to corporate partnerships including Google, Wal-Mart, McKinsey & Company, Major League Baseball and Toyota. He also handled NRDC’s entertainment media, and worked closely with cleantech partner Environmental Entrepreneurs (E2). Before NRDC, Jon was communications director for the bipartisan Global Environment & Technology Foundation, and a program lead at Environmental Media Services in Washington, D.C. He has also worked at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and served with two senior members of the U.S. House of Representatives. Jon Coifman has a master’s degree in public policy from the University of Texas and a bachelor of arts in political science from the University of Wisconsin. Originally from Minneapolis, he currently lives in New York City with his wife and son. He can be reached at: Jcoifman [at] prcg [dot] com

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