Hope for Renewables? Even the Slightest?

There may be a model for progress in renewable energy from a somewhat unexpected source.

I starting working seriously in what was then called alternative energy (now,most often, renewables) in the early 1980s. It was a moment of optimism or, more accurately, the end of a moment of optimism, some would say foolish optimism, about weaning western economies off complete reliance on fossil fuels. There were very advantageous tax credits for investment in non-fossil energy, like solar, wind, cogeneration and hydroelectric. The federal and state governments, even many local governments, were investing directly in projects, some pilots and some to full-scale.

As a staff member of a state agency in North Carolina in the 1980s, I remember running some financial analyses in which 55 percent of investment costs in a certain cogeneration project were returned in the form of first-year tax credits, both federal and state. Operating under those conditions, few projects were rejected. That was good, in a way, because a lot of generation capacity and infrastructure was built and a lot of new technologies were developed. But, of course, it wasn’t completely good, because some of those projects were not, as it turned out, the best use of resources.

In any event, there was significant interest in non-fossil energy development, there was substantial growth, new enterprises, significant investment, and projections of much more of the same.

Many of these non-fossil energy programs had started with characteristic super-seriousness in the Carter administration following the ‘moral equivalent of war’ speech to the nation, but fell into disrepute with the election of Ronald Reagan and were either unfunded or allowed to expire. And that, as they say, was pretty much that. Renewables have continued to grow in importance and scale, but at nowhere near the size or pace once forecasted.

In the intervening thirty years, or so, we in America have engaged in mostly ineffective and unproductive, finger-pointing, blaming and shaming Kabuki theater that passes for debate hereabouts. Renewable supporters pretty much directly accuse the mainstream oil and gas industry of orchestrating a money-fueled conspiracy to perpetuate our addiction to fossil fuels. Supporters of the fossil energy industry, including many government officials who still count on ‘big oil’ for contributions to both campaign and constituent economies, complain about undue environmental restrictions which prevent the country from effectively employing its domestic resources.

Result? Mistrust. Muddle. No progress. (By the way, my experience suggests the situation is much more nuanced than our national dialog suggests; people in the energy business aren’t necessarily evil and environmentalists waste a lot of air-time accusing them of being so.)

America might best look – as it often should for examples of how adults behave in matters of serious policy debates – to Europe for a way forward.

Günther Oettinger is the European Commission’s energy commissioner. And, although he was a member of German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s center-right party and himself a political conservative, he was won praise from Europe’s environmentalists for promoting a sensible way forward in promoting decarbonization, the use of non-fossil fuels to promote the reduction of carbon dioxide emissions. He has also proposed comprehensive energy efficiency programs, funded by utility re-investment.

Oettinger has taken no little flak from his conservative colleagues back home but he has remained steadfast in moving the agenda forward because he thinks it is the right way forward for Europe. No blaming. No posturing. No demonizing.

Can you imagine an American conservative doing the same? Can you imagine one even publicly acknowledging the issue of carbon dioxide emissions much less taking on conservative colleagues to get something done on the issue?

We have so much to learn.