What We Really Need From Congress

There are many people, both in Washington and in the industry, going “hair on fire” over the likelihood that the Treasury Grant Program will be allowed to expire, or that the ARPA-E program may be shut down.

These moves would be sad. They would hurt. They would cost some people their jobs, even their companies.

But they are not the most important message we should be giving Washington, and not the most important policies we should be getting from Washington.

That comes down to one word. Consistency.

Renewable energy is not a fad. And it’s not a spigot you can turn on-and-off at will. It’s a serious, growing industry. It’s not as big as the oilpatch, and it’s not as old as the coal business, but it’s a business just like those older businesses are, and it deserves to be treated in the same way.

Which means consistently.

Most of the “subsidies” given to the fossil fuel industries are buried deep within the tax code, and have been there for decades. Companies have learned to rely on them in their long-term planning, and most of their planning is long-term.

In size they dwarf anything even contemplated in the renewable space. Our pointing them out is worthwhile, especially when their proponents claim we couldn’t live without subsidy. But expecting Congress to get rid of them all at once is a fool’s errand.

Equal treatment for renewable energy means more than a parity on subsidies. It means parity in treatment. It means aid to this sector should be just as regular, just as dependable, as aid to any other important industry. Because many in the renewable space are doing long-term planning, and if Congress is going to push money out, then take it back year by year, depending on the political winds, then that money is worthless, a gentle form of torture.

Consistency in treatment also implies a certain respect. The volumes of renewable energy being pushed out by solar and wind and geothermal companies today may be small, but they are growing, fast. Much faster than fossil volumes could ever grow. We’re the coming thing, and whether or not Congress chooses to subsidize our growth we’re still going to grow.

Maybe we’ll grow faster in China, or India, or Europe if Congress treats us like dirt, but we are going to grow. We are also going to make profits while we do it, profits we can choose to invest here or elsewhere, depending again on the consistency of government policy toward the sector.

That’s the message we should be sending. It’s a professional message, an honest message. It’s the simple truth of the matter.

Treat rewewable energy consistently. You can consistently support it or consistently ignore it, but you can’t expect any industry to care about you or your re-election if it is coming to you hat in hand every year. And we all have better things to do with our time than beg for what should be our due.

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Dana Blankenhorn has covered business and technology since 1978. He covered the Houston oil boom of the 1970s, began making his living online in 1985, and launched the Interactive Age Daily, the first daily coverage of e-commerce, in 1994. He has written for a host of off-line and online publications including The Chicago Tribune, Advertising Age, and ZDNet. He has covered PCs, networks, telecommunications, cable technology, Internet commerce, the Internet of Things, Open Source and Health IT, He began covering alternative energy at his personal blog, Danablankenhorn.com, in 2007.

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