Has shifting to renewable energy become 'irreversible'?

By Jonathan H Harsch

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WASHINGTON, June 9, 2016 - The battle over U.S. energy policy is intensifying as Congress struggles to reconcile the two very different energy bills passed by the House and Senate.

At the heart of the battle is whether it makes sense to transition from fossil fuels to renewables like biofuels, wind, and solar energy. At issue is the choice between steering new investment into renewables as the Obama administration wants - or, as GOP presidential contender Donald Trump champions, putting that investment instead into new oil and gas drilling, pipelines, and export terminals, and even into mining and burning more coal.

Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz insists that transitioning to renewables not only is urgently needed but also will deliver major economic and environmental benefits. Speaking at the seventh annual Clean Energy Ministerial (CEM) meeting in San Francisco last week, Moniz announced new pledges for the multi-country Mission Innovation initiative that could double federal funding for clean energy research to combat climate change. He said this could “drive down adoption costs to grow low-carbon economies and create entirely new markets for the solutions that will reduce heat trapping emissions.”

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The CEM attracted energy ministers and high-level delegates from 23 countries and the European Union.

Moniz noted that renewable energy has already become cost competitive in some areas, as shown by Lazard's Levelized Cost of Energy Analysis, released last November, listing wind power as low as $32 per megawatt, solar at $43, natural gas at $52 and coal at $65. The Lazard report states that “Certain alternative energy generation technologies are cost-competitive with conventional generation technologies under some scenarios.”

Echoing the White House's assertion that renewable energy has already established “irreversible momentum,” Moniz said in San Francisco that the shift to renewables “is becoming inevitable. This is the direction we're going.”

Canadian Minister of Natural Resources Jim Carr agreed on the new direction, saying, “By doubling our investment in clean and emissions-reducing energy technology, we will help meet our climate-change objectives, increase the productivity and competitiveness of Canadian firms, and create clean jobs.”

In sharp contrast to Moniz and Carr, experts at the Heritage Foundation's Fueling Freedom energy forum this week warned that it would be disastrous to continue pursuing “unreliable, expensive renewable energy sources inherently incapable of replacing the vast energy services fossil fuels provide.”

But Moniz isn't alone in pledging to double government funding for renewable energy research and development. At the San Francisco meeting, 21 signatories including China, India, Saudi Arabia, Canada, Mexico and the European Union pledged to double their clean energy R&D over five years. These pledges add up to a global $30 billion per year by 2021, up from $15 billion today.

 

In a welcoming message to the countries and major investors participating in the Clean Energy meetings, President Obama said that with world high-temperature records being surpassed every month, “We have to accelerate our transition to the clean energy economy of tomorrow and we need the world's smartest scientists, engineers and entrepreneurs to help us do it.”

Obama and other speakers at the Clean Energy and Mission Innovation meetings stressed that along with doubling public support for renewables, governments need private-sector support to address the climate challenge. So the Mission Innovation initiative includes partnering with the Breakthrough Energy Coalition. The coalition of leading companies and investors is committed to providing “truly patient flexible risk capital” in order to “accelerate the change to the advanced energy future our planet needs.” The coalition's leaders - from the U.S., China, India, Saudi Arabia, Britain, France, Germany, South Africa, Nigeria, and Japan - include Amazon's Jeff Bezos, the Virgin Group's Richard Branson venture capitalist John Doerr, Bill Gates, Microsystems co-founder Vinod Khosla, Chinese business magnate Jack Ma, George Soros, and hedge fund manager Tom Steyer.

The investors stress that the first step is the additional $15 billion per year in public-sector funding for clean energy research provided by the Mission Innovation pledges. They say the necessary next step is their commitment as private-sector investors “to support the innovative ideas that come out of the public research pipeline.”

Another part of the latest clean energy initiatives is a series of webinars focused on renewable energy advances around the world. You can learn about and register for the webinars at the Clean Energy Solutions Center.

More information about U.S. government programs supporting clean energy is in the just-published 122-page Federal Financing Programs for Clean Energy. This resource guide covers programs from the U.S. Departments of Agriculture, Energy, Housing and Urban Development, State, Transportation and Treasury, along with the Environmental Protection Agency, Overseas Private Investment Corporation, and the Small Business Administration.

But the concerted Obama administration effort to paint the transition to renewable energy as inevitable and irreversible is not going unchallenged.

At Monday's Heritage Foundation energy forum, co-authors Kathleen Hartnett White and Stephen Moore discussed their new book, Fueling Freedom: Exposing the Mad War on Energy. White, director of the Armstrong Center for Energy and the Environment at the Texas Public Policy Foundation and a former chairman of the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, said that “We are a fossil-fueled civilization” and dismissed concerns about “so-called global warming.” Insisting that “Carbon dioxide is not a pollutant, it is a gas of life,” White said the major threat today is not global warming but the Obama administration's efforts to shut down not only the coal industry but the oil and gas industry as well.

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Moore, a Heritage Foundation visiting fellow and former Wall Street Journal economics writer, said “This country was built on coal . . . We should be using it.” Calling for shutting down the Department of Energy, he said that by increasing coal, oil and natural gas production, the U.S., Canada and Mexico “could be energy independent within five years.”

White charged that the American public and policymakers are “abysmally unaware” of the importance of fossil fuels and the impossibility of replacing fossil fuels with renewable energy. Moore concluded that “to be against fracking is like being against a cure for cancer.” While both see hydraulic fracturing as a great economic opportunity, neither mentioned the fact that it was the Department of Energy's research programs which first developed fracking.

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