How Obama can wean the country off oil without help from Congress
Nor are the main pieces of energy and climate legislation focusing on procurement. The American Energy Innovation Council — which includes Bill Gates and executives from companies like Xerox, General Electric, and Bank of America — is lobbying for a research plan and money and pilot programs all focused on expensive and spectacular new technology, like small fourth-generation nukes. The plan totally ignores the Big Green Buy strategy.
Another group, the Electrification Coalition — made up of CEOs from FedEx, Nissan, and PG&E — has published an ambitious 180-page plan for converting America’s light-duty vehicle fleet to 75 percent electric miles by 2040. It also calls for radically upgrading America’s old, overburdened, semi-deregulated, and thus chaotic electrical grid, which loses about twice as much power in transmission as it did in the 1970s. The EC is lobbying hard and has helped shape the Electric Drive Vehicle Deployment Act of 2010, legislation being championed by Rep. Ed Markey (D-Mass.).
But again, neither Markey’s staff nor the EC is comfortable demanding the Big Green Buy. “We don’t think that is the best approach” was all I could get from a Markey staffer. Instead, the EC proposes a Rube Goldberg-style scheme of geographic target areas that will receive multiple layers of consumer and industry tax credits and tax breaks — $7 billion total. That may sound big, but in the face of the climate crisis it is Lilliputian.
This approach is emblematic of the intellectual poverty of the political class and business elites. The bill is entirely too clever for its own good, painfully complicated in its tinkering instrumentalism, which in the end would do very little and do it too late, like an impoverished family scrounging for dinner money on the eve of their eviction. And the Electric Drive Vehicle Deployment Act will be red meat to the climate deniers and fiscal hawks. You can almost hear the derision now: if yuppies in Berkeley want to drive funny new plug-in cars, why do we have to pay for it?
Viewed broadly, there are four simple things the government can do to help close the clean-technology price gap and aid clean-tech business across the valley of death.
First, it can boost R&D as Gates has requested, but that alone won’t bring mass-scale green power on line.
Second, it can set up a Green Bank tasked with financing clean-tech businesses as they cross the valley of death. Along with loans, the government can offer more loan guarantees, which encourage otherwise frightened private capital to invest in clean-energy start-ups. The Waxman-Markey climate bill of last year included language to do that, but nothing like it is yet law.
Third, the government can impose mandates on the private sector requiring companies to adopt electric vehicles, purchase clean energy and conserve energy. Industry already lives with numerous rules that put limits on the anarchy of production. Yet in the crazy world of American politics circa 2010, forcing green procurement mandates on business would be very difficult.
So let’s get real. The fourth path is the best: a robust program of green procurement is the most immediate and politically feasible thing government can do to boost the clean-tech sector. And the only number that approaches the scale of the energy economy is government spending on energy. We need to be talking not about millions or billions but trillions of dollars going in a new direction. If the government is serious about electric vehicles — then just buy them already!
At one level, the mad Tea Partyers are correct: government is leviathan-a monster. But it is our monster, and with proper leadership even this government in the current climate could jump-start a clean-energy revolution.