It's hard to call President Obama's goal to get 80 percent of U.S. energy from clean sources by 2035 a walloping victory for the green tech industry.
In the State of the Union speech last night, Obama said the U.S. should end oil subsides and added that the U.S. needs to shift from conventional fossil fuels to clean energy over the next 25 years. Solar lobbyists have been ferreting through bills to uncover fossil fuel subsidies. Seventy percent of all energy subsidies currently go to fossil fuels, some have contended. The President and green energy advocates will have plenty of fodder to combat oil companies in the next go-round over energy bills.
The problem comes in what gets included in the definition of "clean" and ultimately might benefit from federal programs designed to boost production or R&D in "clean" energy.
"Some folks want wind and solar. Others want nuclear, clean coal, and natural gas," Obama said. "To meet this goal, we will need them all, and I urge Democrats and Republicans to work together to make it happen."
Nuclear and clean coal are included by many in the definition of clean energy. While the debate rages on over those two technologies, exploring the possibility of expanding nuclear and clean coal only represent a moderate threat to solar and wind. Nuclear plants cost quite a bit -- $4,000 to $8,000 a kilowatt by various estimates, not including fuel, waste disposal or the interest needed to cover construction costs for the 15-year period it might take to build a reactor.
Utility-scale solar will drop to $3,000 a kilowatt by the end of this year and solar plants can get built quickly -- approximately 15 gigawatts went live worldwide last year.
“In the first ten years of a clean energy standard, there won’t be any nuclear,” Arno Harris, CEO of Recurrent Energy, told us a few weeks ago about what might happen if the U.S. passed a clean energy standard including nuclear and carbon capture.
Clean coal technologies like carbon capture remain in the experimental stage. Carbon capture is only a growth industry on paper: by 2030, the world will need 850 CCS plants and 3,400 by 2050, according to the Global Carbon Capture and Storage Institute. The number completed to date: nine, and they are all quite small. Other clean coal technologies could get to market more quickly, but they are experimental -- and expensive, as well. Lawsuits, regulatory issues, technical snags and the reluctance of banks to fund science projects could slow down many clean coal and nuclear projects for years.
Natural gas is the threat here. Natural gas is only kind of clean. Gas plants emit half of the emissions of coal plants, but far more than solar or wind. (The carbon footprint of a solar panel is dissipated in four years.) The gas industry has been clamoring to get included in a "clean" energy standard for the last two years. Remember those relentless ads during the Winter Olympics?
The President's speech gives that the green light.
The problem of including gas in a clean energy standard is that it is already mature. Natural gas already provides 21 percent of U.S. electricity right now and the figure will rise to 40 percent by 2035, according to consulting and construction giant Black & Veatch. Technology allowing fossil fuel companies to access shale gas deposits, combined with a proposed pipeline in Alaska that should kick into gear in the next decade, could keep the price of gas under the $8 per million BTU level through 2030. The Marcellus shale deposit that straddles the U.S.-Canadian border produced 200 million cubic feet a day in July 2008. Two years later, 1.4 billion cubic feet a day were being pumped out. Gulf Coast shale deposits will generate 15 billion cubic feet a day in 2030.
Capital costs for combined cycle plants are also comparatively inexpensive, hovering in the low $1,000-per-kilowatt range.
That's all good. We will need that energy to keep the country moving. Renewables can't be built in time to displace it all and it beats burning coal.
Unfortunately, including gas in a clean energy standard opens up the real and scary possibility that methane will absorb the lion's share of research grants, loan guarantees and other dollars coming out of Washington under clean energy mandates. Discounts on desert land for wind and solar farms could easily be matched by discount royalties on gas projects. A portion of research dollars should go to innovative gas technologies like fuel cells. The U.S. has historically used subsidies and spending to get emerging industries -- railroads, semiconductors -- off the ground. Accelerated depreciation of drilling equipment, however, doesn't fit that definition.
Potentially, it also could create unintended barriers. Let's say this leads to a standard mandating that utilities must get 25 percent of their power from "clean" sources by 2020 as a starter and gas is an option. Utilities will load up on methane. Solar dies and little changes. Under the Black & Veatch study, 78 percent of power in the U.S. will come from gas, nuclear, hydro and renewables by 2035.
To top it off, natural gas companies also employ far more lobbyists that wind, solar and efficiency combined, and their shoeboxes filled with campaign contributions are far, far bigger. Remember the Pickens Plan from 2008? T. Boone Pickens funded a ballot measure that argued California could become cleaner if it shoveled $10 billion to build natural gas filling stations and other infrastructure that would benefit his companies. Expect more patriotic proposals like this.
In other words, the President could end fossil fuel subsidies, but funnel the money into clean technologies like fossil fuel.
The only thing that might change is the date on the check.