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Don’t believe the hype: Five things you should know about clean energy investments

Photo by rustman.

A version of this post originally appeared on Climate Progress.

In an attempt to keep the political war against renewable energy in the headlines, Republicans held another hearing to question the value of government investments in the sector.

Looks like 10 political sideshows on Solyndra weren’t enough.

If the hearing were being used as a chance to objectively assess where the industry stands, that would be one thing. But the title of the meeting gave away the real political intent: “The Obama Administration’s Green Energy Gamble: What Have All The Taxpayer Subsidies Achieved?"

Actually, those green energy investments have yielded substantial returns. While the political grandstanding goes on in the House of Representatives, here are five important things you should know about how promotion of clean energy has supported American businesses and consumers:

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Buzzword decoder: Your election-year guide to environmental catchphrases

bees saying buzzwordsDon't expect the environment to be in the spotlight in political campaigns this year. The economy will be the star in 2012, with the culture wars singing backup.

Still, environmental issues are getting talked about, often obliquely as part of larger discussions about energy -- though the words don't always mean what you might think they mean. And the words politicians don't say can tell you as much as the words they do.

Here's a guide to energy and environmental buzzwords you'll be hearing, or not, this election year:

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Clean energy as culture war

Not that long ago, some folks were arguing that clean energy -- unlike climate change, which had been irredeemably stained by partisanship (eww!) -- would bring people together across ideological lines. Persuaded by the irrefutable wisdom of wonks, we would join hands across the aisle to promote common-sense solutions. It wouldn't be partisan, it would be ... post-partisan.

Some day, I will stop mocking the people who said that. But not today. The error is an important one and it is still made regularly, especially by hyper-educated U.S. elites. They think clean energy is different from climate change, that it won't get sucked into the same culture war. They are wrong.

On clean energy, the material/financial aspects of the conflict are the easiest to understand. Wind, solar, and the rest threaten the financial dominance and political influence of dirty energy. Last week, the Guardian broke the story of a confidential memo laying out a plan to demonize and discredit clean energy, meant to coordinate the plans/messages of several big right-wing super PACs funded by dirty-energy money.

At the bottom of that same piece, though, is one of the best expressions I've ever seen of the cultural and psychological aspects of the conflict. Witness:

Opposing Obama's energy policies was a natural fit for conservatives, said Marita Noon, a conservative activist from New Mexico who was at the meeting. "The American way, what made CostCo and Walmart a success, is to use more and pay less. That's the American way." The president's green policies however were the reverse, she said.

"President Obama wants us to pay more and use less."

Not for the first time, it strikes me that conservatives understand the stakes of this struggle much better than liberals and centrists do, especially at a gut level. They're on the wrong side of it, but at least they get it.

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Yet another ridiculous billboard campaign featuring psychos

Apparently the political discourse in this country is irrational enough that one anti-green billboard campaign featuring megalomaniacs will not satisfy our craving for crazy. No, there have to be two billboard campaigns in one month that cast aspersions on good ideas by associating them with crazy dudes that no one likes.

We present to you:

These guys hate "energy independence"! If you don't recognize him, the guy on the left is Ed Perlmutter, a representative from Colorado. Barack Obama, we assume you're good with. Oh, and that one’s Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, that Iranian leader known for being crazy. He's crazy! Therefore, since he is on this very badly designed billboard with those two (shudder) Democrats, they must be crazy, too.

Read more: Energy Policy, Oil, Politics

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Obscure-but-awesome energy law getting shivved by natural gas lobby

This house is extremely efficient.

Wouldn't it be cool if we passed a rule mandating that all new federal buildings had to be carbon-neutral by 2030? The feds buy and build a lot of real estate. An effort to wring fossil-fuel energy out of those buildings -- by increasing their efficiency and supplying them with renewables -- would seriously bolster domestic markets for efficiency and distributed energy. Beyond that, it would serve as a proving ground and an example for the communities where those buildings are located. It would be galvanizing.

"But," you're protesting, "we would never do something so radical. Germany might. Denmark, maybe. Not us."

Hark! I say to you. Hark to this sh*t: We do have such a rule!

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Congressional report says ‘drill, baby, drill’ won’t protect U.S. from oil price spikes

Photo by swisscan.

A version of this post originally appeared on Climate Progress.

More domestic drilling does not make America less susceptible to global supply disruptions or protect consumers from gasoline price volatility, according to a new analysis [PDF] from the Congressional Budget Office (CBO).

The CBO report reviewed different policies intended to make the country more energy secure, concluding that the only effective tool for shielding businesses and consumers from price spikes is to use less oil.

Because oil is sold on the global market, CBO concludes that increasing domestic oil production would do little to influence rising gas prices in the U.S.

These findings back up historical experience. According to an analysis of 36 years of gasoline prices and domestic oil production conducted by the Associated Press, there is zero statistical correlation between increased drilling and lower prices at the gas pump.

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New interactive book could explain everything anyone needs to know about energy

The Kickstarter video for The WATT? An Energy 101 Primer does a good job of explaining why, exactly, people should care about energy:

Energy is everything. It's a part of pretty much every aspect of modern life. wherever you live, whatever you do, however you do it.

Unfortunately, most people know next to nothing about how this stuff actually works. The makers of the The WATT? -- Focus the Nation, a clean energy youth organization, and Friend of Grist List Ben Jervey -- aim to change that by publishing an "users' manual for energy in the 21st century." They're going to publish it as a PDF whether you fund their Kickstarter project or not, but if they raise enough money, they are going to make it a much, much more awesome interactive e-book with charts, graphics and videos.

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Big Oil dominates political attacks on Obama

A still from an American Energy Alliance ad. (Click to watch.)

Here's an astonishing statistic, brought to us by Bloomberg:

In April, 16,991 negative ads aired in various parts of the country and 13,748 of them -- or 81 percent -- focused on energy, according to data provided by New York-based Kantar Media’s CMAG, which tracks advertising.

Energy? Really?

The details of the story make clear that the vast bulk of these negative energy ads are attack ads directed at Obama, purchased by big PACs -- Americans for Prosperity, American Energy Alliance, Let Freedom Ring, Crossroads Grassroots Policy Strategies -- awash in Big Oil money.

What the hell is going on? Why is energy dominating the right's campaign against Obama?

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How wind power fits into our energy diet

Photo by stormcrypt.

There’s a bunch of discussion right now on renewable electricity vs. baseload electricity. David Roberts gives a good German example here. Chris Nelder goes so far as to suggest that thanks to renewables, "baseload is doomed," while John Farrell suggests that renewable energy is the new and sexy iPad, destined to replace the old baseload typewriter. Meanwhile, in utility land, we see issues like the one that took place in the Northwest last year, with Bonneville Power Association (BPA) forcing the curtailment of wind turbines, on the claim that the grid could not readily accommodate the rising percentage of intermittent resources.

So is BPA just a Paleolithic typewriter sales rep, or are these smart writers missing something fundamental about the power grid? I suggest to you that both are right -- but that the debate is focusing on the wrong axis. As evidence, consider that the percent of power generated from renewable energy in the U.S. today is virtually the same as the percent of power we generated from renewable energy 20 years ago. If something dramatic is happening in renewable energy that is disrupting the old paradigm, it hasn’t happened yet. So then why is there so much noise about the sudden challenge integrating renewable energy into our grid?

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Solar policy can advance (or delay) grid parity by a decade

A version of this post originally appeared on the Institute for Local Self-Reliance.

In their interactive graphic, Bloomberg Energy Finance calls solar grid parity (when electricity from solar costs less than grid power) the "golden goal."  It's an excellent illustration of how the right energy policy can help a nation go gold on solar or wallow in metallurgical obscurity. In the case of the U.S., it may mean delaying grid parity by eight years.

In the screenshot below, countries in purple have reached the golden goal in 2012 based on the quality of their solar resource and the cost of grid electricity, as well as a 6 percent expected return on investment for solar developers. (Note to Bloomberg graphic designers -- countries meeting the golden goal could be colored gold.)

Read more: Energy Policy