"The Quest" book coverIn the New York Times Book Review, Fareed Zakaria has a review of Daniel Yergin’s new book, The Quest, that reads like a kind of capsule summary of current elite conventional wisdom on energy. (I like Zakaria a lot, but he was not the right choice for this assignment — someone with more subject-matter expertise would be better capable of properly critiquing Yergin.)

The CW goes like this: We do not yet have the technologies we need to reduce carbon pollution sufficiently, despite what crazy hippie Al Gore says. To get to that exalted state of technological sufficiency, we need a “miracle” breakthrough, or several. And there are just two credible policies for getting there:

The truth is that energy is such a complicated area, with so many potential technologies and pathways, that having the government pick a few is probably not very useful. What government can do well is two things: making carbon emissions more expensive through a carbon tax and, crucially, providing much greater support for basic research into green technologies — to take a quantum leap in one or preferably many of them.

A carbon tax and basic R&D: that is legitimate energy policy. The former provides a “market pull” for new technologies and the latter provides a “market push,” but neither unduly meddles with the market or “picks winners.” Picking winners is what industrial policy does, and all good neoliberals know that industrial policy is discredited.

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Sigh. There is, as I’ve said forty-eleven times, nothing wrong with a carbon tax or R&D money. Hooray for both! But the fussy disavowal of deployment — getting existing clean energy technologies built on the ground — is endlessly frustrating.

In the world of energy politics, most actually existing disputes have to do with industrial policy — which industries and companies get what government money. It’s a grubby game, to be sure, filled with political influence and suboptimal economic outcomes. But it’s the game that’s actually being played. Zakaria wants to float above such unseemliness, lest his nonpartisan technocratic bona fides be sullied. But ignoring those battles doesn’t stop industrial policy, it just leaves it in the hands of energy incumbents. It puts clean energy out there, in the airy future, in some scientist’s lab, and draws attention away from the fights at hand.

Dissing deployment is misguided for two reasons.

First, deployment is R&D. There is no more reliable way of bringing costs down and uncovering new efficiencies than deploying at scale. That’s how you find the choke points, many of which — and this is crucial — are not technological. They have to do with law and regulation, with investment and financing, with sales and consumer experience. They have to do with outmoded social and economic practices, and it’s often impossible to generate the will to change them without a huge push to deploy.

Second, deployment creates political constituencies. Zakaria, like so many pundits, describes America’s failures on clean energy in terms of character — we are too fearful, our politicians too venal, our corporate titans too greedy. But the more practical explanation is simply that there’s no political constituency for clean energy with the power to get its way. One way to create such a constituency is to get people directly involved, to give people and communities a direct financial stake in the effort’s success. That’s what deployment does.

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Incidentally, deployment of distributed energy — small-scale solar, wind, and biomass built at the individual home or community level — is the best at constituency-building, precisely because it is distributed. That’s why Germany’s clean energy feed-in tariffs, despite their transparent costs to ratepayers, remain persistently popular: There are just lots of Germans who own a chunk of renewable power, or live in communities that do, or know people who do, or want to. They will not accept from their politicians the kind of nihilistic posturing in which U.S. Republicans engage.

We cannot know whether or when a price on carbon or radically increased R&D money will become politically possible in the U.S. It’s worth advocating for them relentlessly, and good for Zakaria and Yergin for doing so. But it is a grave mistake to downplay the importance of the the battles that are going on today, battles over loan guarantees and tax credits and cash grants and PACE loans and building codes and all the rest. These unsexy examples of small-ball politics may not stir the blood of Big Thinkers like Zakaria and Yergin, but they are the only places where the rubber is hitting the road.


HIGHLY GERMANE UPDATE: Eleven of the world’s biggest engineering organizations just released a statement say that we do in fact have the technology we need to radically cut CO2.