"It is remarkable how little concern men seem to have for logic, statistics, and even, indeed, survival: we live by emotion, prejudice, and pride."
- Dwight Eisenhower, in a letter to Winston Churchill
The above quote is very true, and it would appear particularly so right now regarding rhetoric about clean energy policy. Over the past week, we've seen a bunch of op-eds, some fiery, some sober, attacking clean energy policy and its proponents. And of course, then there are lots of reactions from the clean energy community and its proponents, some rebuttals with data, but a few just some form of a primal scream. The issue has become politicized to an illogical level, pundits are making statements that have no thought-out, sensical conclusion, and the entire situation is basically just, well... stupid.
I think it's time for everyone to take a step back and re-insert sanity and fact-based decision-making into how we talk about energy policy. I would propose to both presidential candidates that they pledge to establish a bipartisan commission, with representatives from big business, entrepreneurs, military, public policy, and former legislators, to investigate and then propose a balanced, coherent and comprehensive energy policy to the President. A Simpson-Bowles for energy policy, in other words. Their stated objective wouldn't be just clean energy policy. But it would be to develop policy recommendations that would result in cheaper, more domestically sourced energy, in as environmentally sustainable a fashion as possible, and with a net reduction in the federal deficit.
A real honest-to-God energy policy for the nation, in other words.
Reading the various op-eds this week, one gets three distinct impressions:
1. A lot of complaints, no solutions.
I didn't have the harshly negative reaction to David Brooks' column this week that some others had. A lot of his logic about the flaws of the Loan Guarantee Program holds water for me. And he acknowledges that climate change is a priority problem for society, and even suggests he would support a carbon tax, even though he admits that cannot pass Congress right now.
But then he just leaves it there.
Either you think climate change is a big problem, or you think it isn't. If you're in the latter camp, I think there's a fairly large body of evidence at this point that says you're wrong, but at least then it's intellectually honest of you to simply favor doing away with green energy policy altogether (leaving aside all the other many policy benefits of supporting the technologies and industry, of course).
But if you do think climate change is a big problem, you simply cannot say that clean energy policy is flawed and then not offer any alternative proposals. That's just negligent. And intellectually dishonest.
2. Way too much focus on small pieces of the energy policy puzzle, used to paint too broad of a picture.
Our current national conversation around energy policy is, like our energy policy itself, highly disjointed. Which then allows grand sweeping attacks and proclamations based upon relatively small facets of the story.
I'm a free-market type by nature. Yes, as I've written before, I agree that the Loan Guarantee Program made a mistake extending what was intended to be project finance support into the grey area overlaps of late-stage venture capital. And yes, at a more general level, I believe that government staffers are always at a disadvantage in making investment decisions versus relying upon the larger private sector, if assigned the same objectives.
But that's a pretty limited set of situations. It's silly to evaluate government "investments" simply on financial returns, because that's never the primary objective of such programs to begin with. If you disagree with the other objectives (which can include jobs, technological leadership, environmental impact, or simply accelerating learning curve effects on the costs of emerging technologies), see point number one above, but also don't ignore them when evaluating the effectiveness of clean energy policies. And there are many other aspects of energy policy that have been very successful even from a returns perspective -- in fact, within the Loan Guarantee Program's project finance investments, for instance.
The conflation of totally different government policy efforts further exacerbates the issue. A lot of the recent failures of government-backed startups have been the result of economic development programs, not clean energy programs.
Let me tell you about a state that has backed several cleantech startups with hundreds of millions of dollars in benefits, to attract their manufacturing facilities to the state. Yes, the state's name begins with an M.
Yep, you guessed it -- it's Mississippi. The state government under notorious liberal Haley Barbour has shelled out tons of handouts to at least five cleantech startups, to get them to relocate their operations into the state.
And they're not alone, nor is this a new trend. States have for decades had their Economic Development departments provide heavy incentives to individual companies to try to outcompete other states and attract new facilities, whether those are creating green jobs or non-green jobs. I'm not trying to single out Mississippi, it happens all over. Such as in Massachusetts, with Evergreen Solar and several cleantech startups that got similar packages and subsequently got a lot more negative attention for it. I personally am not convinced of the worth of these types of economic development policies, it always seems to me like classic "corporate welfare" and the type of auction-based bidding where the winner often ends up with buyer's remorse. But it happens all the time, in most states, under Republicans and Democrats alike, and it's got NOTHING to do with clean energy policy.
And of course, the failure of many of these cleantech startups would have a lot to do with the direct and indirect (ie: price drops in incumbent energy) effects of the macroeconomic downturn. If cleantech startups fail after receiving government support during the worst economic period in living history, there are actually TWO possible conclusions: 1. the policies are flawed, or 2. there wasn't enough support.
If David Brooks or Steven Syre or others want to attack cleantech-supportive policies as having failed, they need to better articulate a) that they're really talking about a small subset of cleantech-supportive policies, and b) exactly how the policy failures are a more impactful factor than macroeconomic conditions, or broader energy policy impacts, etc. And it would help if they would stop conflating long-running economic development policies with the more recent clean energy subsidies.
3. Cherry-picking and misusing data.
I hope someone alerted the Red Cross to the clear violation of the Geneva Convention in this recent Washington Post article about Al Gore's wealth, because the data has been absolutely tortured.
Hey, maybe Gore's wealth has indeed increased 50X during the past twelve years. How is that possibly due solely to his cleantech investment activities? He gives paid speeches. He runs a media group. He gets compensated by companies like Apple, Google, and Metropolitan West Financial for serving as an advisor or as a board member.
Based upon the investment track records of the groups he's been associated with on the cleantech investment side, it wouldn't be surprising if he's made some money there, if only off of fees -- maybe some carry, maybe not.
But if, predominantly as a cleantech venture investor, he's made $98 million over the past 12 years, we should all tip our cap to the man. Because he would be the ONLY ONE of us to even come close to doing so. Just looking at Gore's various business activities, what makes most sense to you? The reporter who pulled together this horrible piece of "journalism," and its implications of underhanded business and government practices, should be ashamed of this article. It was clearly just a manufactured and strained effort.
I mean, this kind of stuff makes no sense even on its face, and yet this is just one example of a lot of really screwy data being thrown around out there. Romney suggests that half of the companies backed by the Obama administration have failed? Clearly factually wrong. $90 billion in "green pork" says Paul Ryan? Completely debunked by the fact-checkers. Claiming that the ARRA stimulus is largely responsible for driving down the cost of solar panels, as some have done? *Ahem* China *ahem.*
You can't have a rational dialogue about any policy area if everyone insists upon bringing their own cherry-picked and perhaps completely made up "data" to the effort.
Hence my proposal: It's time to wrest back the energy policy discussion -- clean energy policy and traditional energy policy, combined -- into the realm of reality. It's time to pull it back from all this useless partisan bickering. This isn't inherently a blue vs. red thing, both energy and environmental policy have traditionally been non-partisan issues. And it's time to bring together deeply experienced experts from across the various stakeholder groups to bring real data to the table, and to have an open dialogue around what should be done to pursue some shared national objectives, and get both sides to stop using our sector as a political football.
I don't kid myself about any such commission's ability to force through their recommendations. Like with Simpson-Bowles, I would expect the commission's findings to be given lip-service support and then once again attacked piecemeal in partisan-based rhetoric.
But even just establishing such a commission would send a powerful signal of how important it is that we come up with a coherent national energy policy, for security, economic, and environmental reasons. And it would create a "safe space" for a rational, fact-based dialogue.
And who knows, maybe it would actually come up with something that a group of lonely centrist politicians could support.
I think both presidential candidates should be asked to sign on to a proposal like this. And I wish journalists would take such an approach on the increasingly rare occasions when they ask the candidates about these issues.