December 29, 2008

Can Clean Energy Save America?

Posted on December 29, 2008 by Christopher Davis

America, and our new President, face a daunting array of challenges as we close out 2008 and enter the New Year. These include a general economic meltdown, widespread job losses, a collapsing auto industry, unsustainable dependence on foreign oil, climate change and a protracted war in Iraq, among others. Many of these problems relate directly or indirectly to our production and consumption of energy.

The initial focus of the incoming Obama administration is rapid deployment of a massive economic recovery package. Early indications, including the President-elect’s post-election statements and his cabinet-level appointments, suggest that “green jobs” and “green infrastructure” are likely to play a prominent role in Mr. Obama’s efforts to restart the U.S. economy, as reflected in the Presidential transition website.  A number of commentators have talked of a “Green New Deal” as the key to revitalizing our economy. They may just be right.

From 2003 through the third quarter of 2008, private U.S. investment in “clean technologies” (mostly alternative energy-related) surged, totaling about $2.5 billion in 2007 and at least $3 billion in the first three quarters of 2008. However, due primarily to the credit crunch and unavailability of project financing for capital-intensive renewables projects such as wind farms, such investment sagged substantially in the fourth quarter. Despite considerable investor interest, many renewable energy projects have been put on hold. This is bad for both the economy and the environment.

There is much that the federal — and state — governments can do to help stimulate investment in clean energy, using both carrots (subsidies) and sticks (regulatory mandates). On the subsidy side, government loans or loan guarantees could do much to ease the credit crunch and facilitate the financing of renewables projects. Other tools include expanding tax credits, governmental procurement of renewable energy, increased federal research and development grants for clean energy technologies, etc. Potential mandates include a federal renewable portfolio standard for electric utilities, increased auto fuel efficiency standards, stronger building and appliance efficiency standards and regulation of greenhouse gas emissions via EPA rule or cap-and trade climate change legislation. Such measures could materially improve the economics of alternative energy production and boost efficient energy use.

Governmental and private sector investment in renewable energy and other “clean technologies – including wind, solar, geothermal and tidal power; advanced biofuels, “smart-grid” development, equipment efficiency, energy storage, green buildings, electric cars and “clean coal” technology – can do much to reinvigorate our economy, increase our energy security and reduce our greenhouse gas emissions. Such investment can also help to jump-start American innovation and entrepreneurship, reinvent our declining manufacturing sector, and improve our balance of payments through reduced oil imports and clean technology exports. Moreover, policies that promote sustainable energy production and consumption can help create a shared sense of national purpose to which everyone can contribute.

So can clean energy save America? We may soon get a chance to find out.

Tags: Energyclean technologygreen jobsrenewable energy


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