Friday, September 03, 2010

The New Supply-and-Demand of Energy Innovation

By Alex Trembath. Originally published on the Americans for Energy Leadership Blog.

Most of us are familiar with the basic economic principle of supply-and-demand. Economists tend to envision the intersection of the supply and demand of goods and services as the “equilibrium point,” where consumer need for a product meets the ability of producers to provide it. That point is what governs fundamental economic indicators and attributes, especially price and market quantity.

Recently, however, a new supply-versus-demand debate has begun to take shape in the minds of activists and policy-makers alike. Put simply, this new paradigm concerns the supply and demand of clean energy technology.

Conventional wisdom, as it has evolved among global warming activists, tells us that society already has the requisite technology supply to decarbonize the economy. Al Gore has said that “we have all the tools we need to solve three or four climate crises,” and influential climate blogger Joe Romm maintains that “we have all the technologies we need and just lack the political will.” This would suggest that the current supply of clean energy technological is sufficient, and that “political will” should come in the form of demand-side, deployment policies.

But this notion has been increasingly challenged. Energy Secretary Steven Chu, a Nobel laureate, has called for a “second industrial revolution” in clean energy technology, contradicting the perception that political will is the only missing factor on the path to a clean energy future. Chu’s message has become a siren call for many clean energy advocates, but it has not completely dulled the chorus of climate activists who still believe that the technology will materialize once we have fostered adequate demand.

Many of these climate activists have promoted a cap on carbon emissions as their policy-of-choice, ostensibly a mandate that energy companies considerably scale down the burning of carbon sources for energy in favor of cleaner alternatives like solar or nuclear power. However, most governments lack the political will to impose a serious, or “hard”, cap, ending up with a “soft” cap at best, one that allows energy companies to pass on the modestly higher cost of producing carbon energy onto consumers. The theoretical effect of this cap would be to shift consumer energy demand towards cleaner alternatives.

Climate activists point to a similar cap program on chlorofluorocarbons in the early 1990s. But the technological innovations that were required to fix the CFC problem were child’s play next to the mind-boggling challenges of redesigning and deploying entirely new systems for generating, converting, transporting, storing and using energy. In addition, a politically palatable carbon price, like one that would be established by a U.S. cap-and-trade program, would have the approximate effect of increasing the per-gallon price of gas by approximately 10-30 cents—hardly the economic impetus to create a new world.

Subsequently, advocates are now beginning to question the political feasibility of even a soft cap on carbon emissions, following the failure of such a policy to pass the U.S. Senate earlier this summer (the fourth such failure in a decade). A European carbon cap, now in its fifth year of operation, has yet to abate emissions to any considerable degree. Carbon trading schemes are also in the works regionally in the U.S, with the Western Climate Initiative and the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, but these are a far cry from the once yearned-after global cap on carbon emissions. Effort after effort has revealed that nations are unwilling to increase the price of dirty energy, despite IEA projections of a 40% increase in global emissions by 2030. Thus, we see that the chief demand-side effort to reform consumer behavior has met with little success. What, then, is the best path to a clean energy future?

For a more effective and comprehensive solution to our energy problems, we must turn to “supply-side” policies with technological innovation at the forefront. Perhaps the primary obstacle between the status quo and a global clean energy economy is the price gap between clean and dirty energy technology, and a politically palatable price on carbon emissions will do little to bridge that divide. The workable solutions stem from making clean energy cheap, in unsubsidized terms, and available to consumers worldwide.

We can achieve these goals through various supply-side “technology push” policies, such as major public financing of energy RD&D; making the R&D tax credit permanent; and the creation of new public-private partnerships and institutions whose explicit goals are to develop clean technology. These measures must be significant and sustained, and they must complement demand-side industrial policy of which cap-and-trade may be only a small part.

Supply-side innovation policy can be traced to the origins of the Internet, the jet engine, biotechnology, the Manhattan and Apollo projects, and the personal computer. In these and other game-changing technologies, governments played a central role in the initial RD&D processes, to the point where the private sector was able to take full advantage of a technologically transformed economy. We cannot trust the creation of a brand new global energy infrastructure to demand-side policies alone, nor to the assumption that we have all the technologies we need. Partial solutions like cap-and-trade will keep failing until we effectively combine supply and demand approaches towards an innovative mission to build a clean, safe, and sustainable energy future.

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