Renewable Energy: If Not Now, Why?

I was hopeful that recent events would lead to a surge in support for sustainable energy alternatives. The occurrences of the nationýs largest blackout in August, the war on terrorism, labor unrest in Venezuela, mounting evidence of environmental damage, fallout from utility sector restructuring, wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the demise of Enron, slowed economic growth, unstable petroleum prices, rising costs and diminishing supplies of natural gas, a lack of storage space for nuclear waste, proposals for opening protected federal lands to energy resource exploration and extraction and Administration and Congressional support for hydrogen as the futureýs preferred energy option, have served to increase interest in the nationýs energy policy. What these events have not done is to expand appreciably the political support for sustainable energy technologies.

RE Insider – September 15, 2003 – I was hopeful that recent events would lead to a surge in support for sustainable energy alternatives. The occurrences of the nation’s largest blackout in August, the war on terrorism, labor unrest in Venezuela, mounting evidence of environmental damage, fallout from utility sector restructuring, wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the demise of Enron, slowed economic growth, unstable petroleum prices, rising costs and diminishing supplies of natural gas, a lack of storage space for nuclear waste, proposals for opening protected federal lands to energy resource exploration and extraction and Administration and Congressional support for hydrogen as the futureýs preferred energy option, have served to increase interest in the nation’s energy policy. What these events have not done is to expand appreciably the political support for sustainable energy technologies. Illustrative of the problem is the fact that FY 2004 budget for the Department of Energy’s renewable energy programs is likely to shrink by $100-$115 million. The appropriations bills moving through the House and the Senate propose levels even below those requested by the Administration; an Administration not known for its open support of sustainable energy technologies. Efforts by Representatives Udall (D-CO) and Porter (R-NV) to add a modest amount to the DOE budget were soundly rebuffed. Leading members of the House Renewable Energy and Energy Efficiency Caucus even voted against it. Similarly, this has been a much more difficult year for extending the production tax credit for wind. The probability of shrinking federal budgets and diminished possibilities for important tax credits are only the latest in a long series of political setbacks suffered by the sustainable energy sector. Ever hopeful, I am amazed that circumstances have not led to a renewed dedication on the part of national policymakers, Republican and Democrat alike– to lead the nation towards a more sustainable energy economy. Like moths to the light, I had imagined even the most disingenuous of politicians speaking out in support of energy security and independence. Although some progress is being made at the state and local levels and technologies like wind and photovoltaics (PV) are gaining ground in the marketplace, the nation’s health, economy and security depend upon the collective ability to speed up the commercialization and application of domestically available clean energy technologies. As costly foreign wars, interrupted deliveries, decreased supplies and documented health risks have not prompted greater support for available domestic clean energy alternatives, I find myself asking, why? My own opinion on why is that the sustainable energy sector lacks a large integrated grassroots base. Rather than expanding popular support for our technologies, we spend too much time asking politicians and bureaucrats for funding and not enough time talking directly to consumers and voters. For more than a decade the sector as a whole has been losing battles on Capitol Hill. This year will prove to be no exception. By most political standards, the grassroots base of our sector can best be described as puny. Just like the skinny kid on the beach, we keep getting sand kicked in our face. It is time for the sector to decide whether to continue blaming the bullies, or to do something more constructive. Experience teaches that the most reliable way of beating a 600 pound gorilla is to become a 700 pound gorilla. More bulking and less blaming is what the sector needs to succeed on Capitol Hill. There are of course many opinions and proposals as to how we become a 700 pounder. One way is by trying to get fat off federal funds arguing that absent federal subsidies, mandates and dollars sustainable energy industries are at a competitive disadvantage. And, of course, there is the other side of that approach: starving all of the 600 pounders until they’re as slight as we. Although somewhat extreme in their presentation, these statements reflect the approach traditionally employed by our community to enlist the support of politicians and bureaucrats. These concepts have driven policy proposals for the past 20 years. The problem with living off of the government’s largesse is it leads to being periodically fat but not strong. Moreover, political handouts cannot be relied upon for a stable or steady diet. It is tough on the sector to experience significant swings in weight, rather than giving strength, our successes sometimes seem to take it. As a community, we need to introduce stability and regularity into the policymaking, investing and purchasing decisions of both the public and private sectors. To become both large and strong the sustainable energy sector must expand its base. The common denominator for both political and corporate leaders is people, those who vote and those who buy. Somehow our sector has lost sight of its beginnings as a grassroots movement. Success will not come in time without large numbers of consumers and voters expressing their preference for sustainable energy technologies. By choosing green electricity and other sustainable products, communicating with corporate and government leaders, and voting for candidates committed to balancing the nation’s energy economy, consumers and voters can accomplish from the bottom up, what has not been accomplished from the top down. More pointedly, what can never be achieved from the top down–absent a crisis of epic proportion. To succeed in both the political and commercial marketplaces our sector must find grassroots organizing opportunities around which to unite and cooperate. By blaming others, e.g., the Bush Administration or Republican majorities in the House and Senate, for reductions in budgets and the failure to enact needed infrastructure policies, e.g., nondiscriminatory interconnection standards, we give ourselves too little credit for our combined ability to bring voters and consumers into the national energy debate. More unfortunately, we squander the inherent support for clean, available and domestic energy alternatives that has been exhibited in numerous polls taken on energy and environmental issues for the past ten years. The existence of documented evidence of consumer and voter support has shown itself a poor substitute for action. The disconnect between what respondents say on a poll and what they do as voters and consumers has not been lost on political leaders. By successfully building out the sector’s grassroots infrastructure, the dichotomy between thought and deed would begin to disappear. There are a large number of organizations and individuals that comprise the renewable energy sector. Organizing them into a coherent, cohesive and effective coalition will take some doing. Out of practice and sometimes out of touch, opportunities must be found or developed for working with each other in meaningful and effective ways. Practice will make us better, if still imperfect, at cooperation; successful organizing will expand the sector’s base and ultimately its influence. To facilitate and encourage cooperation, I will be writing Insider columns over the course of the next several months on various opportunities that would benefit from concerted action. Each column will identify/describe a project that is underway or being planned and provide the necessary contact information. Everyone should note that there will be no objective science employed in the selection process; those ideas and projects written about will be discovered in the course of conversation, or by someone letting me know of one that they think would make a good grassroots building activity. I hope through these columns to encourage a discussion amongst the sector on the need and means for growing the grassroots base. The first project I would like to highlight is the energy policy survey sent to the presidential candidates by the Sustainable Energy Coalition. Experience suggests that the candidates will be slow to answer the survey’s questions. Therefore, I am encouraging people and their organizations to let the candidates, Republicans, Democrats, Greens, Independents, know that you expect them to respond to the questionnaire and to make their energy policies and recommendations available to the public. Although unilateral statements in speeches and press releases give some insight into a candidate’s understanding and support for domestically available clean energy technologies, they are an inadequate. The Coalition’s survey digs deeper than a 30-second sound bite. For the complete list of questions excerpted from the Sustainable Energy Coalition, download the .pdf here. I would suggest also that people send copies of the SEC survey or one of your own devising to candidates for other elective offices, e.g., Congress, state legislatures, governors, county commissioners and sanitary land-fill boards. It is important to find out before we vote the position of the candidates. It will be equally important to be armed with their answers in the event they donýt live up to their promises once elected. The candidates survey not only asks them to tell us their views on sustainable energy technologies, including efficiency, but how they view these alternatives in relation to fossil and nuclear energy sources. The questions are not tricky and the candidates should have little difficulty in answering them. As answers are received the Sustainable Energy Coalition and other organizations like the American Solar Energy Society and Solaraccess.com are committed to publishing and distributing them widely. The more information and feedback received, the better the information that will be collated and sent back out to grassroots supporters. Therefore, I am asking people to let someone, i.e., me, ASES, the SEC or Solaraccess.com, know that you have contacted candidates about the survey and what their answers were, even if it’s just we’ll get back to you on this. The same goes for contacts you have with other than the presidential candidates. Every effort will be made to catalogue, record and disseminate candidate information. It is important for the candidates to know that someone cares and is watching. I have started the series with the survey because information is basic to the integration of our sector’s efforts on the political front. Raising the issue of sustainable energy development before candidates are in office will make the job of getting them to support our technologies once they are in office easier. Moreover, technology offers us a relatively easy and inexpensive way of gathering and using this information throughout the course of the 2004 elections. I look forward to hearing from everyone and to our working together as a community on this and other projects. I have confidence in the average American’s ability to understand the importance of a more sustainable energy future and to demand of political and corporate leaders actions that free us from reliance upon fossil energy sources jeopardizing the nation’s health, welfare and security. Most of all I am certain that by cooperating and expanding the sector’s grassroots base we will be a fit and effective 700 pound gorilla in no time. About the authorý Joel B. Stronberg has been in private practice since 1978. Currently the Washington Representative for the American Solar Energy Society, he has also counseled many of the major renewable energy sector organizations on key policy initiatives throughout his career and served as a special counsel at the U. S. Department of Energy. Mr. Stronberg attended Northwestern University where he earned a graduate degrees in law and urban studies. He can be reached at Jstronberg@anent.com.

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