The case for technologies that harness renewable resources, improve efficiency, and reduce emissions has never been stronger, and the industry known as cleantech continues to grow at a staggering pace – global revenues for the “Big Three” sectors of wind power, solar PV, and biofuels hit $246.1 billion in 2011 after a decade of annual growth averaging more than 30 per cent. But such an all-encompassing classification – spanning clean energy, advanced transportation, advanced materials, and clean water technologies – has lately made the industry an easy target for opposition, especially in the US, where divisive national politics have made pragmatism a rare commodity.
As a longtime analyst at cleantech research firm Clean Edge and contributor to the recently published book Clean Tech Nation (coauthored by Clean Edge colleagues Ron Pernick and Clint Wilder), I should be on the front lines defending the clean-tech moniker. But given the noticeable intensifying of false debates surrounding clean tech in the last year, it’s worth taking a moment to examine ways in which the industry’s far-reaching identity has opened the door to some misplaced antagonism.
#1: Energy Sources as Sports Teams
Unless you are employed in a particular sector of the energy industry, as long as the car runs, the lights are bright, the showers hot, and the beer cold, it makes little sense as a consumer to root for one specific energy source against another, as if they were sports teams. Solar power isn’t the Miami Heat, and – as much as T. Boone Pickens would like you to believe it – natural gas isn’t the Oklahoma City Thunder.
Of course, it’s imperative to evaluate energy sources based on availability, affordability, and environmental impact. But blind support of identifiers like traditional energy, alternative energy, renewables, or clean energy – which aggregate many dissimilar resources and technologies – can quickly create an “us versus them” culture. And that’s exactly what seems to be playing out on the national political stage in this election season. When the failure of one longshot solar startup (that shall not be named) can be used to demonise all aspects of a multi-hundred billion dollar industry, perhaps the umbrella is too large.
#2: The Misrepresented History (and Current Reality) of Energy Subsidies
Government has always played an important role in energy innovation. Nuclear power plants are offshoots of nuclear submarines, which themselves are derivative of atomic bombs developed by the Manhattan Project – the ultimate embodiment of government-funded R&D. Less understood is that today’s shale gas boom also owes much to government involvement, as recent technological advances are fruits of decades of public-private research and commercialization efforts, as the Breakthrough Institute detailed well in a recent report.
Unabashedly ignoring this history, The Wall Street Journal’s editorial team recently used a snapshot of 2010 federal subsidies to argue that renewables don’t merit government support because right now “wind and solar get the most taxpayer help for the least production” – an argument that only makes sense if 2010 was the lone year subsidies were ever available. Surprisingly, the universe did exist prior to January 1, 2010, so we don’t have to rely on such disingenuous analysis. A report by DBL Investors’ Nancy Pfund and Yale University graduate student Ben Healey, which looked into the historical role of U.S. federal energy subsidies, found that annual federal support for oil, gas, and nuclear has averaged 22 times the amount of subsidies available to renewables.
This extreme imbalance is one reason why Clean Tech Nation’s Seven-Point Action Plan suggests phasing out all energy subsidies over the next decade. We know that’s a controversial proposal, but let’s debate the future of subsidies based on facts, not myths.
#3: The False Promise of Energy Independence
“Lobsters are cheap in Maine because storing and shipping live lobster is hard, but globally traded commodities aren’t like that,” says Slate’s Matthew Yglesias in what might be the most effectively concise dismissal to date of the US energy independence delusion.
Yes, US reliance on foreign oil has fallen amidst an Obama-era domestic production boom – allowing for fewer direct imports from petro-dictator nations. But unlike lobsters, oil is easily stored, shipped, and traded across borders, so America’s oil fate will forever be linked to conditions defined by the global free market.
And if American energy “independence” was truly a top concern, vehicle electrification would be priority number one, as 99 percent of US electricity is derived from domestically-generated electrons. Yet instead of being hailed as uber-patriotic “DEVs” (domestic energy vehicles), electric vehicles continue to fight perceptions of simply being expensive eco-toys.
#4: There is No Such Thing as a Green Job
Granted, this is a tricky one, as definitions vary widely – so claiming a direct link between these jobs and a remedy for the economy often does little more than fuel opposition to all industries involved when the nation’s labor market proves stubbornly sluggish. Opponents can claim, for example, that it takes fewer than 30 workers to maintain a 250 MW wind farm that powers 75,000 households. But as a recent NRDC report finds, that same wind farm will actually create 1,079 jobs over the lifetime of the project, mostly during manufacturing and construction.
There are plenty of wind turbine technicians, increasing masses of solar installers, and armies of workers at the world’s largest industrial conglomerates working on products to beef up the electric grid, boost vehicle efficiency, and convert waste into resources. As demand for clean-tech products and services grows, an expanding workforce will obviously be an economic boon.
#5: The Climate Change “Debate”
When even Koch brothers-funded researchers conclude that the world is warming and humans are to blame, it’s time to stop arguing the science and start focusing on solutions. But this doesn’t seem to be the trajectory of things. Climate change continues to be politically toxic, and demand for cleantech – the market’s answer to a changing climate – is being severely hamstrung as a result.
In place of real climate action, US leadership on both sides of the aisle is clinging to an “all of the above” energy approach. But until the current subsidy outlay changes, in no way will this translate into a level playing field.
Ultimately, cleantech – or green tech, or advanced energy, or whatever you choose to call it – will win out. The realities of a resource-constrained world and changing climate are just too powerful to ignore. But as cleantech moves forward, it’s increasingly important to understand the steadfast opposition – and its myth-making operation – facing this innovative sector that dares challenge the status quo.
Trevor Winnie is Clean Edge’s senior research analyst and contributor to Clean Tech Nation. Trevor also serves as a director of the Pacific Northwest Chapter of Environmental Entrepreneurs (E2), a national community of business leaders promoting economically sound environmental policy.