For the first half of this year, the conventional wisdom was that 2010 would be the year the U.S. committed itself to a national Renewable Electricity Standard (RES) requiring its regulated utilities to obtain an increasing portion of their power from renewable sources over the next ten to fifteen years. Then, at the end of July, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), in pursuit of re-election, threw renewables under the proverbial bus.
Conventional wisdom now holds that election year politicking makes an energy bill with an RES provision unlikely. This turn of events has provoked a wave of whining and hand-wringing. But enough with the whining! This isn't the end of the world; it is a political setback.
There are 35,000 megawatts of wind and 1,200 megawatts of solar PV out there sending electricity to the U.S. grid because a lot of dedicated people wouldn't take no for an answer. Why should the renewable energies change now?
Commentary has turned to what the renewables and environmental communities did wrong and how partisan politics has ruined everything. Reality check: what's going on in Washington is business as usual.
Some lay the blame on the president because he did not put his shoulder into the effort to pass an RES like he did for health insurance reform. But everybody in renewable energy was so in love with President Obama just twenty-one months ago. He talked straight, said a New Energy economy was possible and stayed calm when things got tougher. Guess what? That's exactly what he's done since he became president.
The president didn't turn on the renewables industries. Together, they ran up against the reality of economic circumstances harsher than any in three-quarters of a century. This economy would waylay even the wisest of political strategies. It's easy to look back and pick things apart, but doing it accurately will require the perspective of time. Those who have watched the events of 2008, 2009 and 2010 unfold shouldn't have to be told that a lot of important things got done, there were a lot of tough calls, and nothing goes right all the time.
Nobody was whining and hand-wringing when the stimulus bills of 2008 and 2009 delivered billions of dollars and most of the renewable energy industries' wish list. The president and his people made it happen in spite of the political opposition's determined obstruction. Obstruction from both Republicans and moderate Democrats is deeply saddening -- but not surprising.
Obstruction has always been a successful political tool. It stopped the Civil Rights movement in the 1950s and it served the Democrats during the Reagan years. Renewables advocates should not be flogging themselves or their leaders for running afoul of it. They should be consolidating their base, working to bring costs down, pressing ahead with the agenda they know is right and looking for political leverage.
Consider the careers of some pioneers in the New Energy economy. Paul MacCready built the world's best solar-powered car in the 1980s and Aerovironment, the company he founded, built the ill-fated EV-1 in the 1990s. How would he feel to see the all-electric Nissan Leaf and the plug-in hybrid electric Chevy Volt coming to show rooms in November? Defeated? Not likely.
Tom Gray joined the American Wind Energy Association (AWEA) when the idea of a utility-scale wind farm was about as realistic as putting a robotic lander on Mars. He's still with AWEA, the robots on Mars have found signs of water, the scale of wind turbines is growing and the wind industry is now partially owned by utilities.
Hazel Henderson left a Carter administration government agency in the 1980s and wrote a book called The Age of Light, envisioning a new era powered by the sun. Two decades ahead of her time, she's now working to find ethical ways for business to fund the U.S. solar industry's next gigawatt, and the gigawatts to come.
Paul is gone but Aerovironment is involved in the development of chargers for the Leaf. Tom is still with AWEA and trying to help them figure out how to deal with the fossil fools in the Senate. Hazel is now President of Ethical Markets and is trying to convince bankers and brokers to fund the fight against climate change because it would be so much better not only for their children and their world but for their bottom lines.
What the renewable energy industry has done in the last two decades came hard but engagement taught the pioneers that change comes slowly and takes work, whether or not the Obama girls and the Silicon Valley egoists think so. The Old Energy powerbrokers are not going to simply hand over the keys to the grid, no matter how many coalminers and ecosystems they kill. For over a century, they have proven they are the kind of people who double down on bad bets and make the dealer an offer he can't refuse.
But the times really are a-changing. It is tempting to quote the bard of Hibbing, Minnesota, who famously sang "Get out of the road if you can't lend a hand," but it is all-hands-on-deck time. The conventional wisdom now is that this is the hard part. Forget the whining. It's time to get to work.