Seize the Moment by Changing the Frame

The renewable energy industry has a moment but can it be seized?

The Libyan crisis and the Fukushima nuclear crisis offer renewable energy industries a unique opportunity to retake the political initiative.

But that’s not what my computer screen says.

Instead what I’m reading are predictions (even from people who own solar stocks) that the run-ups are temporary,, that the “solar hysteria will fizzle” and that this is all an evil plot to make America more like Europe.

The problem remains that alternative energy is still seen as partisan. Republicans insist, without evidence, that prices would plummet if drilling were made easier through government policy. The industry winds up defending a Democratic President it may disagree with on other matters.

There are two links that must be broken here. First, the industry needs to stand on its own feet, separate from any President or party. It’s the only way to retain negotiating power when the political winds change – and they always change.

Second, we have to get away from the idea that government subsidies or price-fixing are necessary for the industry to grow.

We have to reframe the argument, as George Lakoff of the University of California writes.

The keys to a new frame are the crossover price and the full price.

One key was delivered right here last summer. Solar prices have crossed those of nuclear energy. The two energy sources cost the same amount of money to produce. The problem is that nuclear scales – a single plant can light a city, while a solar plant can only light a neighborhood.

A second key is that, when all costs are considered, most renewable sources have now reached this crossover point. Add the costs of carbon pollution, or the costs of nuclear pollution, to the cost equation and renewable energy is already the cheap energy.

Charge the full price of nuclear power, the full price of oil, the full price of natural gas, pay the full costs of these power sources, remove their government subsidies, and renewable energy becomes the cheap energy.

The problem lies in the way the debate is framed. Since government policies must change to capture the pollution costs of carbon and nuclear energy, we get locked into a debate which our opponents win by calling the full costs of fossil energy “taxes” which would be “imposed” by an outside power.

Change the frame and we win the argument.

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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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