There is a tendency to frame the politics of clean energy as a debate between the enlightened, forward thinkers on the coasts and the paleolithic environment-hating coal barons in the Southeast and Midwest. It makes a good sound bite, but confuses the ends and the means. Yes, there are strong vested interests in the coal belt and the rust belt that consistently resist GHG caps and clean energy policy. But so long as we frame the clean energy conversation as a wealth transfer from dirty states to clean states, our success will remain contingent upon our ability to get senators, representatives, and voters in those states to act against their near-term economic self interest.

Three maps below clarify the problem, and suggest a solution.

The first map is from the National Renewable Energy Laboratory; it shows the potential for wind and solar energy across the country.

Figure one: U.S. wind and solar potential

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U.S. wind and solar potential

Not surprisingly, wind and solar potential is heavily concentrated in the windy and sunny states of the Northwest and Southwest respectively. This means that any policy path which preferentially funnels resources towards wind and solar projects is a wealth transfer from east to west across the dotted line showed on this map.

This, in essence, explains the mathematical reality that has historically bedeviled every effort over the last decade to create a national Renewable Portfolio Standard: Any such bill has to be passed by the Senate. If we assume that all Senators vote with their economic interests, any clean energy policy needs to create economic benefit for at least 30 states in order to secure the 60 Senate votes needed to avoid a filibuster. A clean energy policy dominated by wind and solar cannot secure these votes. There will of course be state-level policies supporting these technologies, but — not surprisingly — the state’s appetite for renewable energy support maps fairly closely to the map above.

But if we want a national clean energy bill, the definition of clean energy has to be embiggened. Note also that this isn’t just limited to RPS. As long as conventional wisdom is that clean energy = wind+solar, conventional wisdom will keep a clean energy bill from getting through the Senate.

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So how do we fix? As I’ve noted before, an RPS works a heck of a lot better if it frames its objectives in terms of goals rather than paths. But now I have maps.

Let’s first simply look at what happens if we include power generation from industrial waste heat recovery in our list of clean technologies. Not because the best way to fix path-based legislation is to add more paths, but rather because in a goal-driven legislative approach, these zero-emission technologies will also be incentivized.

Figure two: U.S. recycled energy potential

U.S. recycled energy potential

All the sudden, we see huge potential in the rust belt and gulf coast — not surprisingly, in the areas where industrial sites are concentrated. These data are crude, but the figure serves as our current best guess at the national potential for recycled energy, based on data we’ve extracted from EPA databases and various Census reports on industrial distribution. This inclusion alone balances the wind/solar potential in the west, and almost certainly gets a couple Senators to shift their votes, solely out of economic self-interest.

Note that this also pulls a couple swing states into the clean energy camp, suggesting a way for Obama (or McCain, for that matter) to use an enlightened energy policy to pull Pa., Mich., Ohio and other critical electoral states closer to their camp.

Now let’s take one closer look and see what would happen if we really went to a goal-driven clean energy policy. Don’t stipulate technologies, but stipulate that the cleaner your technology is, the greater the incentive you get, whether through an RPS, an output-based standard, or any other technology-agnostic, goal-driven approach to clean energy policy. A big beneficiary of such an approach would be fueled combined heat and power plants which — while not up to the same zero-emission standard as renewables and waste-heat recovery — are still demonstrably cleaner than the grid power they displace. The third figure comes from colleagues at Energy and Environmental Analysis, who monitor the total installed and potential CHP capacity in the U.S. for the Department of Energy.

Figure three: U.S. CHP potential

U.S. CHP potential

Again, we see a bias toward the Eastern states for the same reasons of industrial concentration. However, we also see net gains in the Carolinas and upper Midwest, where there are thermally-intensive industries (grain processing, sugar mills, etc.) that are good sites for combined heat and power, but do not produce as much recoverable waste energy like that found in the chemical, steel, and “rustier” industries seen in Figure Two.

This suggests a way forward for clean energy policy. Focus on goals rather than paths. But articulate those technologies that will benefit from a goal-driven approach, so that senators, representatives, and voters in Pa., La., Ohio and other Southeastern/Midwestern states recognize that such a bill is no less in their economic self-interest than it is for those in the West. Make it economically irresponsible for senators not to vote in support of clean energy, regardless of what they think about the environment, science, or moral obligations to future generations.

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