Friday, February 26, 2010

Welcome Forbes.com Readers

With my post 'running the numbers' on the Bloom Energy fuel cell - their "magic" Bloom Box - now hitting the Forbes.com 'most popular' and 'most emailed' posts lists (currently #4 and #6 on each list), I'm happy to welcome many new readers to WattHead.org - Energy News and Commentary. (The post has also topped the front page at Grist.org and theEnergyCollective.com, so welcome to readers from those esteemed sites as well).

For those new to WattHead, the site is now in its fifth year (6th Anniversary will be this August) and has over 1,000 posts in the archives providing news, original analysis and opinionated commentary written by myself as well as the more than two dozen sometimes contributors, a group that includes some of the brightest and most insightful young thinkers, writers and activists on the web.

For new readers, please dig into the archives, which you can peruse by date and by topic in the left hand column of this site. You'll find content ranging from clean technology reviews (like the Bloom Box post), climate and energy policy analysis, and opinionated commentary on a range of issues relating to the ongoing transition to a clean and prosperous energy future.

If you're interested in finding out more about who I am, my bio is available here, and more of my writing can be found at website of the Breakthrough Institute (where I direct the independent think tank's energy and climate policy program) and theEnergyCollective.com, where I'm a featured writer. You can follow my updates on Twitter @JesseJenkins and subscribe to WattHead.org posts on Facebook here and on RSS here.

Welcome, I hope you enjoy the site, and please leave any feedback in the comments here. Cheers,

Jesse Jenkins
Founder and Chief Editor - WattHead.org


Read more!

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

The Economics of the Bloom Energy's "Breakthrough" Fuel Cell

With all the hype today around the release of the "breakthrough" Bloom Energy fuel cell (which has become known as the "Bloom box" and is referred to by Bloom as an "Energy Server"), it's good to find a couple of posts looking at some real details:

Todd Woody, writing for the NYTimes GreenInc blog, has some details on the design of the Bloom Box solid oxide fuel cells from his look inside the Bloom Energy facilities this week. And Lux Research has this post looking at the economics of the Bloom Box, which is a good read.

It appears that the unsubsidized price of the Bloom Box is about $7-8,000/kW so their 100 kW units cost $700,000-800,000 without subsidy. As a fuel cell, it also needs fuel to run, in this case natural gas or another source of methane (such as landfill gas or biogas from anaerobic digesters).

After federal subsidies for fuel cells (they can claim the same 30% investment tax credit that solar gets) and a $2,500 California rebate, and assuming $7/mmBTU price for natural gas, a 100 kW Bloom Box unit generates electricity at 8-10 cents/kWh. That compares favorable to commercial electricity rates in many parts of the country,(average about 11 cents/kWh across US with higher rates in several states, including California, New York and Hawaii) so there could be good market for the Bloom Box in distributed generation applications in a variety of places, assuming federal/state subsidies holds out.

Unsubsidized cost would be 13-14 cents/kWh, with about 9 cents/kWh from the capital costs of the Bloom box and 5 cents/kWh from natural gas costs, according to Luz Research. If natural gas prices rise or fall 50% (gas prices are often volatile), overall price would fluctuate from 11.5-12.5 cents/kWh to 20.5-21.5 cents/kWh. That unsubsidized price is still too high to compete in most markets with retail electricity without subsidy. However, this is the first generation, and if Bloom can bring prices down (and/or natural gas prices are stable/low), there could be a significant market for this fuel cell.

As far as climate benefits, supposedly it generates electricity at 50-55% conversion efficiency. CO2 emissions when running on natural gas would be just under 0.8 pounds/kWh, which compares favorably to electricity from central station coal-fired plants (2 lbs/kWh) or natural gas plants (roughly 1.3 lbs/kWh) and the national average for on-grid electricity (around 1.3-1.5 lbs/kWh). Clearly, though the Bloom Box is still not a zero emissions tech and would only cut emissions by roughly 50% relative to the national average, unless it runs on landfill gas or biogas or hydrogen from electrolysis fueled by zero-carbon electricity (which would be much more expensive as you have to add cost of electrolysis unit, higher cost electricity, and about 30% conversion losses in electrolysis).

It is also worth noting that the average emissions rate of grid electricity in some states is less than the Bloom Box's 0.8 lbs/kWh. According to EPA's eGrid database, that list of states includes Vermont, Idaho, Washington, Oregon, California and New Jersey. However, EPA does not account for imported electricity across state borders, which tends to increase the emissions rates of most of these states. California, for example, has an emissions rate of about 0.65 lbs/KWh according to eGrid - which is notably less than the Bloom Box's emissions rate running on natural gas - but more like 1.0 lbs/KWh when imports of mostly-coal-fired electricity from out of state is factored in (author's calculations). When imports are factored in, this author calculates that average emissions rates for on-grid electricity in Vermont, Washington and Oregon still fall below that of the Bloom fuel cell (but emissions rates vary within each state from utility to utility as well).

Solid oxide fuel cells have notoriously faced challenges with durability, since they operate at very high temperatures, which the Bloom box will also have to overcome to prove profitable. Todd Woddy writes:

In seven months of [pilot test] operations, Bloom has replaced a few fuel-cell wafers, but the machines have otherwise operated without a problem, Ms. Skoczlas Cole [of Ebay] said.

Bloom executives said the company spent years developing a proprietary seal made from low-cost materials to prevent cracks and leaks. They estimate that the Bloom boxes will have a 10-year lifespan and that the company will have to swap out the fuel-cell stacks twice during that time.

Mike Brown, an executive with UTC Power, a leading fuel-cell maker, said the fuel cells need to last at least four or five years for the technology to be competitive.
The advantage of solid oxide fuel cells running so hot is that all that waste heat can potentially be put to good use. When co-generating heat and electricity, solid oxide fuel cells can reach combined efficiencies upwards of 85 percent, which is excellent, but no word yet whether or not the Bloom fuel cell will co-generate heat. At this point, it appears that it does not (particularly given it's use to power data centers and the like, which can't put the heat to very good use; cooling is more of an issue for data centers!). That's a shame, but perhaps another model of the product at some point in the future will be suited to co-generation applications (e.g. to provide process heat to industrial facilities or neighborhood district heating schemes). [Update: commenter Amazingdrx at Grist reminds me that waste heat can indeed be used to provide cooling using the common absorption refrigeration technique (which I should have recalled, since the entire campus at my alma mater, the University of Oregon - Go Ducks! - was cooled using absorption chillers run by our natural gas plant). So the waste heat from these fuel cell stacks should be used to cool the data centers they also power, increasing the efficiency and economics of the system...]

I also hear that it may require zirconium oxide as a membrane (can anyone confirm that?) and zirconium doesn't grow on trees, nor is it processed quickly, which may hamper production volumes.

So is the Bloom Box the solution to all the world's energy problems? Of course not. But could it finally move fuel cells for stationary power generation a big step forward? It looks like the chances are good. Only time, and the tests of the market, will tell...

It's worth noting though that with the idea initially funded through NASA's Mars program and initial product launch only enabled by public deployment incentives, the Bloom Energy fuel cell is another good example of how public investments in technology R&D and deployment can catalyze significant private sector investment, innovation and entrepreneurship to drive forward a new technology with potential for widespread application as costs come down.

Read more!

It's COLD! It's SNOWING! So is climate change a hoax??

Guest post by Rebecca Anderson, ACE Team Scientist

We are getting slammed with winter this year... it’s been snowing all over the country, all the time! It’s cold!

So doesn't this mean this whole climate change thing is a hoax??

Reasonable question but... umm, no.

Although that’s what a lot of skeptics would like people to think, as Jon Stewart said last week on The Daily Show: “These snow storms still do bring joy to two types of people: Children… and global warming deniers.”

We all understand that the change in seasons every year doesn't mean climate change is a hoax. The onset of winter every year and the cold weather (and snow) that come with it are expected. That’s the difference between weather and climate afterall!

And yet, climate deniers are having a party shouting down climate change using our "intense winter" this year. Jon Stewart and Rachel Maddow made some really great analogies to help shine some light on these arguments (See their vids here and here.).

Saying one snowstorm disproves climate change is like:

- the fact that it's been steadily getting colder since last summer disproves climate change

Picture 3

- saying it's hot right now in Australia proves global warming

Picture 4

- (My personal favorite) when it rains in the desert means it's not the desert!

These are all excellent examples of weather that doesn't go along with a long-term trend. The long-term trends (like a desert being a desert) make complete sense to all of us and none of the above events change our beliefs! So why would it be any different with snowstorms in winter?? It's not.

Climate change could mean more intense snowstorms:

I can take it one step further: there's a good chance that these big snowstorms not only don't disprove climate change, but they could actually be explained and caused by climate change!

You need 2 things to get a big snowstorm:

1. Temperatures below freezing
2. Lots of moisture to make the snow

In a warming world, it's still going to get below freezing in much of the U.S. during the winter. But the closer you get to freezing, the warmer the air is and the more moisture it can hold. So warmer temperatures (as long as they're still below 32ºF) can actually mean a greater chance of getting a really big snowstorm.

One recent study found that 60-80% of snowstorms in the U.S. occur during warmer-than-normal years. (details) The study predicts that "a future with wetter and warmer winters... will bring more snowstorms than in 1901–2000." (read more here.)

Whether the "Snowmageddon" and "Snowpocalypse" storms were actually part of this trend is something we won't know for sure until we get a few more years into the future and can see if they were part a bigger trend or not. But, like Hurricane Katrina, they do fit the predicted pattern of more intense storms in a warmer world.

To read more about this, check out two posts on Joe Romm’s Climate Progress blog here and here.

Read more!

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Make Poverty History: Make Clean Energy Cheap

“If you gave me only one wish for the next 50 years,” declared the world’s wealthiest man during last week’s TED 2010 conference, “I can pick who is president, I can pick a vaccine... or I can pick that [an energy technology] at half the cost with no CO2 emissions gets invented, this is the wish I would pick. This is the one with the greatest impact.”

Bill Gates is right. And he is not just talking about the impact on climate change, which does of course present a major threat. He is also talking about one of the most critical global imperatives to make poverty history: making clean energy cheap.

“If you could pick just one thing to lower the price of to reduce poverty, by far you would pick energy,” said Gates in his introduction. Gates should know as well as any development expert, since the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation – the world’s largest transparent private foundation – has invested billions of dollars in extreme poverty alleviation since 1994.

Nearly 1.6 billion of our fellow human beings have no access to electricity, and around 2.4 billion people – over one third of global population – meet their basic cooking and heating needs by burning biomass, such as wood, crop waste, and dung. “Without access to modern, commercial energy, poor countries can be trapped in a vicious circle of poverty, social instability and underdevelopment,” concludes the International Energy Agency.

The direct health consequences of using primitive solid fuels like biomass and coal are severe. According to the World Health Organization, solid fuel use causes 1.6 million excess deaths per year globally, especially among women and children -- the fourth largest risk factor in developing countries after malnutrition, waterborne disease, and unsafe sex, and the second greatest environmental cause of disease overall.

These numbers are staggering. Energy poverty is an extreme and dangerous condition, and its elimination must be one of the highest development priorities for the 21st century. Nobody on this planet should be forced to burn dung to feed their family and heat their home, and access to modern energy sources should be considered a basic human right.

The implication is that energy technology innovation today should be considered one of the world’s most important social and economic justice movements. The growing movement to make clean energy cheap, and to deliver that energy globally, has the potential to alleviate as much human suffering and injustice as some of the largest, concerted social movements in history.

Of course, driving down the price of clean energy technologies is also essential for reducing global carbon emissions. Until the price gap between low-carbon and high-carbon energy is bridged, poor and rich nations alike will continue relying upon coal and other fossil fuels to power their development. This would virtually assure climate destabilization.

The task is clear: to eliminate energy poverty and avoid climate catastrophe, we must unleash our forces of innovation – namely, scientists, engineers and entrepreneurs – to develop a portfolio of truly scalable clean energy technologies, bring these technologies to market, and ensure they are affordable enough to deploy throughout the world.

If you gave me only one wish, then, it would be for the United States to launch a major public-private project to make clean energy cheap (or as Google puts it, "renewable energy cheaper than coal"). This requires the development of a comprehensive, strategic roadmap for technology development and deployment, including the identification of specific technical hurdles and the various financial and human resources needed to overcome them. It will then require large-scale public-private investment in each stage of the energy innovation pipeline – from basic research and development, to applied R&D, demonstration, direct deployment, infrastructure, and education – eventually on the scale of $50-80 billion per year of federal investment.

The clean energy investments in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act were an important first step. Congress should take the next step today with a bipartisan plan to increase the federal energy R&D budget to $15-30 billion per year, on par with the National Institutes of Health, and to develop a comprehensive federal energy education program. If these investments are funded by a modest carbon price, then all the better, but we can no longer make energy technology policy dependent on the carbon pricing agenda. Clean energy innovation is an economic, national security, and human development imperative, and these public investments should be made with or without cap and trade.

The United States was a driving force behind the worldwide expansion of prosperity and security in the 20th century. Today, a new American project to make clean energy cheap can alleviate untold human suffering and injustice, develop the world’s strongest clean energy industry, and help save the world from climate destabilization. In short, it may be our generation's single greatest opportunity to advance global prosperity in the 21st century and secure the lives of future generations. As Bill Gates put it, “This is the one with the greatest impact.”

Teryn Norris is Director of Americans for Energy Leadership, Public Policy major at Stanford University, and Senior Advisor at the Breakthrough Institute.

Read more!

Monday, February 22, 2010

Thoughts on Framing Climate Change

By Leigh Ewbank. Cross posted from The Real Ewbank

The climate blog It’s Getting Hot in Here featured an excellent post on the framing of climate change at the weekend. Taj Schottland, a senior at the College of the Atlantic, has developed three frames for communicating climate change and associated policies to political conservatives. To appeal to conservative audiences, Schottland recommends:

  1. Replacing the term ‘climate change’ with ‘climate security’ to better explain the ways in which the changing climate adversely affects America’s economic health, national security and prosperity.
  2. Highlighting clean ‘energy advancement’ as a way to avoid the negative connotations associated with reducing emissions and by implication economic growth.
  3. Emphasising the objective of cap-and-trade policies to ‘harness the power of the market.’

Regardless of whether you agree with Schottland’s suggestions, it is encouraging to see that climate advocates are examining the ways in which climate change is framed. And perhaps more importantly, that they are developing new frames to communicate the impacts of the phenomenon to a wider audience. Given that the construction of one capture-all frame is virtually impossible, we need multiple frames to appeal to people across the political spectrum, and build the broad public support needed for government action.

How to frame policy responses effectively is another challenge for climate and renewable energy advocates. Take the Australian Government for example. It frames its climate change policy as a carbon pollution problem and has proposed a cap-and-trade scheme as the appropriate policy response. Unfortunately for the Government, the policy is poorly understood by the public and has failed to gain the support necessary to pass the Australian Senate.

I have presented ‘nation building’ as an alternative way to frame climate and energy policy in Australia.

The idea of nation building is not unique but Australians have a particular admiration for government projects that strengthen the nation. Investment in renewable energy and associated enabling infrastructure are central to our response to climate change and its ability to be framed in terms of nation building is a strategic leverage point. It is capable of winning a greater degree of public support than the complex market mechanism the Rudd Government—and many climate advocates—seek to implement. This approach demonstrates the potential to mitigate and adapt to our changing climate without the phenomenon being the central frame for policy responses.

An American version of the approach is most visible in the work of progressive think tank the Breakthrough Institute, New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, and others who present a global ‘clean energy race’ as a national challenge worthy of national attention. This strategic lever is reminiscent of the USA/USSR ‘space race’ of the 1960s. The ‘race’ narrative guides action by drawing attention to the important role of public investment, and America’s ability to develop advanced technologies to overcome the Soviet challenge. The clean energy race appeals to those who want the United States strive towards greatness and have a keen sense of national competitiveness. Engaging in a clean energy race will require the US to invest in deploying clean energy and fully utilise its capacity for innovation.

Of course, the clean energy race is more than just an intelligent narrative. It is a reality. A recent report by the Breakthrough Institute and Information Technology and Innovation Foundation finds that the United States is lagging behind Japan, South Korea and China on several key measures of clean technology competitiveness. The potential for gaining public support and action from Congress is greater with the clean energy race narrative than policies centered on reducing carbon emissions.

Getting the United States to engage in the clean energy race is a win win in terms of climate change. It will ensure the increased innovation and deployment of clean energy, decarbonising our global economy and reducing the price of renewable energy for all.

Read more!

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Innovating to Zero: Gates Wants Clean, Cheap Energy Fast

Originally posted at the Breakthrough Institute

[UPDATE 2/18/09: Video of Gates' TED talk is now online, and embedded in the post below]

Bill Gates wants clean, cheap energy more than he wants to pick the next 50 years worth of presidents, even more than he wants a miracle vaccine. At least that's how he ranked his number one wish while describing climate change as the world's greatest challenge to a rapt audience at the TED conference last week.

Just weeks after lending his voice to a growing "innovation consensus" by writing on his blog, Gates Notes, that innovation, not just insulation, must be the focus if we are serious about "getting to zero," Gates' TED speech expanded on what we need to get there:
"We need energy miracles. The microprocessor and internet are miracles. This is a case where we have to drive and get the miracle in a short timeline."
Gates emphasized the need for an energy miracle portfolio that includes carbon capture and storage and nuclear as well as wind and solar. According to CNN's coverage of the conference (watch the video below), Gates showed particular interest in the potential for nuclear waste reprocessing as a source of clean, cheap energy.


He also set 2050 as the deadline for reducing carbon emissions to zero and outlined a tight innovation and deployment timeline: 20 years to innovate, 20 years to deploy.

The Gates Foundation typically invests its resources in issues related to public health and poverty, not climate change and energy, which is why Gates' unprecedented speech could be a game changer for two important reasons.

The first is that Gates has come to realize that the reducing the carbon intensity of energy is the only feasible way to achieve a zero-carbon world. In an article about Gates' talk for AlterNet, Alex Steffen explains that Gates presented the following equation to explain how he arrived at this conclusion.
CO2 = Population x Services x Energy x Carbon
Steffen dubs this the "Gates Climate Equation," though regular readers of this blog will also recognize it as a simplification of the Kaya Identity, which looks like this:
Carbon emissions = Population x Per capita wealth x Energy intensity of the economy x Carbon intensity of energy
Whatever you call it, the conclusion is the same: in a world with increasing population that values greater economic growth, reducing carbon emissions means fueling development with clean energy that is cheaper than incumbent fossil fuels. As Gates has written, energy efficiency can help, but getting to zero carbon will require major innovation if we want abundant carbon-neutral energy.

The second reason why Gates' opinions are so poignant, is that he defines a clear need for investment in clean technology innovation, notably asserting that current technologies are not sufficient despite Al Gore, the main flag-bearer of the phrase, "We have all the technology we need," being in attendance.

According to Gates:
"All the batteries we make now could store less than 10 minutes of all the energy [in the world...So, in fact, we need a big breakthrough here. Something that's going to be of a factor of 100 better than what we have now."
As a respected innovator and philanthropist, Gates' opinions may help drive home an aspect of the climate change/clean tech debate that is often underappreciated, or at least, easily overlooked: scale.

We have grappled with the scale of both the climate challenge and the energy challenge via our writing and admittedly, they both seem overwhelming. But while Gates acknowledges that the solutions are complicated - clean technology innovation and implementation will not be easy, especially in such a short time frame - the ultimate goal to overcome both challenges is clear: make clean energy cheap, and fast.

Read more!

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Remaking the Global Climate Framework

Originally published by The Stanford Daily

Two months ago, hundreds of world leaders and tens of thousands of activists gathered in Copenhagen to craft a new global treaty to replace the Kyoto Protocol in 2012. Green groups put on a spectacle – yes, Greenpeace even docked two of its famous boats nearby to “help in pushing the delegates” – and some observers declared it a make or break event in global climate history.

Today, there is strikingly little to show for the whole affair, momentum has slowed to a crawl and hardly anyone is discussing the aftermath. For good reason: the Copenhagen Accord is basically a voluntary agreement with obscure objectives, and its impact will be negligible. Michael Cutajar, the former chairman of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) negotiation group, said that “Beyond the lack of clarity in its drafting, its main weakness is the lack of ambition and identifying responsibilities… Who should do what, and when, in order to limit warming to two degrees?”

What went wrong at Copenhagen? As I recently argued on BBC World View, the outcome was primarily the result of a flawed UNFCCC process and policy framework. The first and most obvious problem was imagining that 192 countries – some of which represent thousands of times more people than others – could produce a meaningful climate mitigation treaty. The UNFCCC process is kind of like the U.S. Senate (today one of the most dysfunctional national legislative bodies in the world) but at least four times as complicated.

There is growing consensus that global climate mitigation policy should be moved into a setting like the G-20 or Major Economies Forum on Energy & Climate (the members of which effectively constitute a super-majority of the world). David Victor, a former Stanford professor and leading international energy expert, recently put it this way: “With a deal this complicated and difficult, the fewer countries you need to reach an agreement, the better the chances are.”

The second overarching problem was the policy framework. For nearly two decades, the dominant national and global policy approach to climate change mitigation has depended on establishing strong, “legally binding” caps on carbon dioxide pollution, particularly through cap and trade and other measures aimed at making fossil fuels more expensive.

Today, the writing is on the wall: the Kyoto Protocol failed to achieve significant emissions reductions, even with a “legally-binding” agreement. As President Obama himself noted in his post-Copenhagen press conference, “Kyoto was legally binding and everybody still fell short anyway.” Copenhagen failed to produce a binding treaty, even with great pressure and expectations. If the world continues down this road -- an approach some experts have dubbed "magical climate thinking" -- negotiations will again fail to produce a meaningful outcome.

The time has come to remake the global climate policy framework to focus on global energy technology policy. Instead of debating emissions targets and timetables like accountants, we need the largest emitters to think like engineers and concentrate on identifying specific technical hurdles and mobilizing the resources to solve them. Most importantly, policymakers need to focus on the goal of “making clean energy cheap,” or as Google puts it, “renewable energy cheaper than coal.”

How much money will each major emitter put on the table to invest in development, deployment and infrastructure of low-carbon technology? What hurdles will those policies confront, and what is each country’s low-carbon technological roadmap? How will the policies be structured, and how can nations productively collaborate and compete on technological development? These are the kind of critical questions that should be negotiated.

Some advocates claim that if the U.S. Senate passes climate legislation similar to the American Clean Energy & Security Act (ACESA), the UNFCCC will achieve a breakthrough. But little evidence suggests that China, India and other countries will respond by implementing strong binding targets, or that signatories will even uphold their emissions targets. ACESA is weak technology policy at best, given that its clean energy investments represent only a small fraction of expert consensus, and not exactly the kind of example we want to set for the world.

The irony is that while the U.S. and Europe continue playing the accountants game of targets and timetables, Asian governments are the ones beginning to move forward with serious technology policies, investing massive amounts in clean-tech development and deployment – while the U.S. falls behind. This is motivated not by climate mitigation nor international law, of course, but economic competitiveness. We should leverage these efforts to motivate the policies we need in the U.S. and abroad, and to develop a new approach.

Ultimately, technology policy is the single most important lever the world has for overcoming this challenge. Our civilization possesses enormous capacities for invention and innovation – now we must develop a global climate policy framework that finally puts them to good use.

Read more!

Penny Wise and Pound Foolish: Why Obama's Symbolic Spending Freeze May Grow the Deficit

With rising anxiety about mounting federal deficits, President Obama declared a freeze on all non-defense discretionary spending in his latest budget proposal. Heavy on symbolism and light on impact, the Administration's proposal attacks all of the areas of the government least responsible for the inexorable increase in federal deficits, while potentially starving key parts of the discretionary budget critical to America's economic prosperity.

Let's be clear: ballooning deficits do pose a real long-term threat to the United States' economic security. Under current forecasts, the accumulated deficit could total $20 trillion by 2020. That could hobble Uncle Sam with interest payments on the federal debt nearly as large as the projected total for all domestic discretionary spending. Efforts clearly must be taken to avoid such an unsustainable - and risky - financial future.

That said, curbing domestic spending is the wrong route to trim the deficit. The President's spending freeze applies to only a small fraction of the federal budget, while exempting both the mounting costs of two wars and the ever-rising bill for the nation's entitlement programs - Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid.

Together, defense spending and the three big entitlement programs account for roughly 60 percent of President Obama's $3.7 trillion FY2011 budget. Defense spending has soared 70 percent since 2001, in inflation-adjusted terms, reaching the highest level in post-World War II history. The Pentagon's $708 billion 2011 budget is now 23 percent higher than the peak of Regan-era Cold War military spending. At the same time, the steady rising costs of an aging population are projected to drive the price tag for entitlement programs alone to nearly half (46%) of the U.S. budget by 2020.

There is simply no route to a balanced budget without the hard work of serious entitlement reform, including efforts to control the rising costs of health care in America. Likewise, slashing domestic spending will do little to control the deficit without efforts to rein in defense spending, beginning with the responsible disengagement from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Without a growing economy, taming the deficit will prove impossible

Despite long-term deficit concerns, slashing federal spending or raising taxes in the short-term - e.g. while economic recovery is tenuous and unemployment still hovers near ten percent - would be tantamount to economic suicide. As long as the economy remains on shaky ground, real deficit-cutting efforts will effectively stay shackled; tax revenues will remain stagnant while efforts to trim spending or raise tax rates could send the economy tumbling back into recession. Thus, without a growing economy, taming the deficit will ultimately prove impossible.

As such, getting the budget back in the black has more to do with smart investments to ignite America's engines of economic growth than symbolic spending freezes. While Clinton-era deficit reduction efforts are often credited with taming the federal deficit in the 1990's, it was robust economic growth, largely driven by the long IT boom of the mid and late '90's, that did the lion's share of the work to turn deficits into the surpluses.

Along with real entitlement reform and winding down the wars, smart government investments in broad-based economic growth must therefore be the keystone of a three-part strategy to truly balance the federal budget.

Domestic spending freeze undermines critical investments in America's prosperity

That's where the pernicious potential of the new spending freeze becomes clear: the embrace of symbolic "restraint" on domestic spending could have a real impact on the Obama Administration's efforts to make critical investments in areas like infrastructure, education, and innovation, undermining precisely the efforts necessary to get America on the path to prosperity.

The IT boom that paved the way to America's return to fiscal health in the 1990's was in fact the result of precisely the kinds of federal investments that today's budgets threaten. For four decades after World War II, the federal government made enormous investments in research universities, national laboratories, communications and micro-processing technologies, and the necessary infrastructure to support the development and commercialization of information technologies that have transformed the American workplace, created entire new industries, and made the American economy the most productive in the world.

Yet even as these government investments were paying dividends and new technologies were in the process of remaking the American economy, the U.S. government was already in the process of weakening its commitment to the very innovation system that had made the IT revolution possible. In the 1980's, federal funding for education, infrastructure, and technology R&D was already on the decline, an overall trend that only continued through the Clinton and Bush years.

Thus, even as the economic boom associated with the IT revolution was eliminating deficits that at the beginning of the decade had appeared intractable, the U.S. government became complacent about precisely the kinds of public investments that catalyzed American innovation and prosperity. With the exception of bio-medical research, which saw big increases in the late 1990's and early 2000's, federal investment in America's innovation economy has stagnated over the last three decades. And without accelerated technological innovation and progress, America's prospects for real sustained economic growth are limited.

President Obama's first budget, and the stimulus passed by Congress last winter, offered some hope for a change in course. Spending on R&D, education, technology, and infrastructure was up. And to the President's credit, the proposed 2011 budget has preserved funding increases for many of these programs despite the proposed discretionary spending freeze. But if America hopes to catch the next technological wave and ride it to fiscal stability, it will have to invest much more in its innovation economy, returning to levels not seen since before 1980.

Case in point: investment needed to secure clean energy competitiveness

Energy is a case in point, although by no means an isolated one. While investing in clean energy, or any other particular sector of the economy, will not single-handedly cure America's economic ailments, new growth sectors with multi-trillion dollar potential don't grow on trees. Making investments now to catalyze competitive clean energy technologies and industries will pay big economic dividends down the line.

American policymakers would thus be foolish to ignore the economic potential of soaring global demand for clean energy in any serious strategy to get both the U.S. economy and the federal budget back on track.

Unfortunately for a cash-strapped America, in today's increasingly competitive global environment, securing market share and leading industries in the clean tech sector won't be possible on the cheap.

In his State of the Union, President Obama lamented, "There's no reason Europe or China should have the fastest trains, or the new factories that manufacture clean energy products."

On the one hand, President Obama is right; neither China nor the EU has some inherent competitive advantage in the clean tech field.

But the President is missing the very clear reason our Asian and European competitors are out-pacing the United States in clean tech: governments in Beijing, Tokyo, Seoul, and across the eurozone are all launching (or redoubling) comprehensive national clean energy strategies backed by big, long-term public investments to support each stage of the clean tech value chain.

Take China as an example, where both the Chinese central government and numerous provincial governments are together committing tens, if not hundreds of billions of dollars annually to secure competitive clean energy industries - and the jobs, tax revenues and export opportunities that go with them.

Carving out America's market share in the growing sector will similarly require both a focused national strategy and sustained public investment to support the key components of a competitive clean energy economy: robust clean energy innovation, manufacturing leadership, and strong and consistent market demand.

"I do not accept second place for the United States of America," President Obama boldly declared in his State of the Union. Yet when it comes to the race to harness clean energy growth, the United States will continue to languish in second place - or worse - as long as clean energy investment remains restrained by the Administration's spending freeze.

Real strategy to control the deficit requires long-term focus

In the end, there are no short-term, easy fixes to a problem as intractable as the soaring federal deficit. Nor will critical public investments in education, infrastructure, innovation, and competitive American industries pay huge dividends in the next budget cycle.

Rather, a real effort to put both the federal budget and the U.S. economy back on track will require an honest commitment to take up several hard tasks over the long-haul: bringing solvency to the nation's critical entitlement programs; reining in historically-high defense spending without imperiling the nation's security; and making a series of robust, sustained public investments that can put America back on the path to long-term, shared prosperity.


Jesse Jenkins is Director of Energy and Climate Policy at the Breakthrough Institute, and co-author of "Rising Tigers, Sleeping Giant," a major report on international clean tech competitiveness. Follow him on twitter @JesseJenkins

Read more!

Friday, February 12, 2010

Major Analysis Shows Road to a Coal-Free Northwest


This is a cross-post from It's Getting Hot in Here

The coal industry in the Pacific Northwest received a heavy blow yesterday with the release of the Northwest Power and Conservation Council's (NWPCC's) Sixth Power Plan, describing how the region encompassing Oregon, Washington, Idaho, and Montana can cost-effectively shut down at least half its coal plants (including coal plants outside the region that supply these states with electricity) by the year 2020. The NWPCC failed to include this move to phase out coal in its official recommendation, for such is the power of the coal lobby. Yet the fact that the Council did include the analysis in its Sixth Plan is a testament to the hard work of climate activists in the lead-up to the Plan's release.


During the fall of 2009, the NWPCC held hearings on its Sixth Plan throughout the Northwest. Back then, it was unclear whether the final plan would analyze how our region could begin moving away from coal at all. Yet by the end of the year, the Sierra Club and allied organizations had turned out hundreds of people to hearings in Oregon, Washington, and Montana, to urge the Council to use its own studies to show that a coal-free Northwest is possible. I myself attended hearings in the Oregon cities of Portland and Eugene, where I heard NWPCC members remark repeatedly on how impressed they were with public involvement in this process, and with the turnout of young people to both hearings.

Thanks in large part to grassroots activism, the final Sixth Power Plan shows how the Northwest can phase out at least half of its coal plants, meet the great majority of its new energy needs through increased efficiency, and feasibly reduce greenhouse emissions with a carbon price of $47 per ton of carbon dioxide emitted. The Plan clearly shows that there is absolutely no need to build a new coal plant anywhere in the four-state region of the Northwest.

Is the Sixth Power Plan the final word in the struggle to end the Northwest's reliance on dirty coal? Of course not. For one thing, phasing out half of our region's coal plants only gets us halfway to where we need to be. For another, utilities are not bound to act on the fact that the road toward a lower-carbon future is now illuminated. Ultimately, the people who must be persuaded that public opinion will not tolerate a prolonged dependence on coal are the decision-makers in major utilities, and the government agencies with direct authority to regulate pollution. It's time to build on the groundswell of activism that scored this victory in the Sixth Power Plan, and use it to keep up the pressure to eliminate coal use in the Northwest altogether.

We must begin by closing Oregon's Boardman Coal Plan well before the 2020 shutdown date proposed by Portland General Electric. We must close TransAlta's coal plant in Centralia, Washington, Montana's massive Colstrip Plant, and many others. The Northwest needs to invest heavily in renewable energy and efficiency projects to replace the electricity now derived from coal, while at the same time providing thousands of green-collar jobs. The road ahead will be marked by some setbacks, but many victories as well.

The release of the Sixth Power Plan is one of these victories. It's a victory because a third-party government body has now clearly shown that a transition away from coal is possible. It's a victory because it has shown climate activists in the Northwest the power we can have when we get organized. Now let's take this victory and run with it.

Read more!

It's Not All Good: Why You Should Worry About the Clean Energy Race

Originally posted at the Breakthrough Institute.

By Devon Swezey

In his State of the Union Speech, President Obama issued what is now a familiar refrain: "the nation that leads the clean energy economy will be the nation that leads the global economy." If there were still doubts about which nation has the edge they were put to rest days later by a bluntly titled front-page article in the New York Times, "China is Leading Global Race to Make Clean Energy."

Though the story is not new, the article is the latest indication of the alacrity with which China has emerged as a clean energy powerhouse in the span of just a few years. China now manufactures more solar cells than any nation in the world, and recently surpassed the United States as the largest market for wind turbines in 2009. According to "Rising Tigers, Sleeping Giant," a recent study by the Breakthrough Institute, China is also a world leader in advanced transportation technologies and batteries, is increasingly localizing the production of nuclear power plants, and has developed some of the world's most advanced CCS technology.

Despite the mounting evidence, many have dismissed the idea that the United States is competing in a "clean energy race" with China, or that it matters.

Some critics assert that characterizing the intense competition as a "race" obscures the climate benefits of greater clean energy deployment throughout the world and the "win-win" nature of a global clean energy economy. The New Republic's Brad Plumer embodies this "it's all good" line of reasoning, writing:

If China zooms ahead and figures out how to make really cheap wind turbines, that doesn't hurt anyone--it just makes the enormous task of cutting global carbon emissions that much easier.

Plumer's casual attitude towards the economic consequences of ceding clean tech manufacturing leadership to China is a slap in the face to U.S. Senators Sherrod Brown (D-OH) and Debbie Stabenow (D-MI). The pair has been working hard to secure the new clean energy manufacturing jobs that can help revitalize the industrial heartland.



At Yale e360, environmental journalist Christina Larson similarly suggests that the United States has little to lose if China dominates emerging clean tech industries:

The United States will still gain many new green-collar jobs in installation and maintenance, which can only be locally based, as well as sales teams, conference planners, and other positions already arising to support the growing green-tech field.

Forget about the export-oriented, high-value added, high-wage clean energy manufacturing jobs of the future that Democrats have promised will jumpstart the ailing American economy; the clean energy conference organizing industry is now open for business.

The New America Foundation's Reihan Salam mocks the idea of a "clean technology race," arguing erroneously that the barriers to entry in clean energy are low and that any established competitive advantage will be "ephemeral."

He compares China's clean tech policies to Japan's policies of the 1980s, as if the Japanese government did not succeed in supporting the development of what are still world leading high technology industries in automobiles, electronics, and high value steel manufacturing. While Japan was investing in high-tech industries the United States was simultaneously accelerating the financialization of its economy, creating trillions of dollars of paper wealth that has largely vanished over the last two years.

Indeed, Salam admits that federal investment in technology has spawned entire new industries like aerospace and electronics, but takes pains to paint similar investments that can catalyze the development of new clean technologies as "disastrous."

Apparently our surging clean tech competitors in Asia and the EU didn't get the message.

It's Not All Good

There seem to be three pillars of the "it's all good" argument advanced in various forms by Plumer, Larson, and Salam. The first simply asserts, "Isn't it great that we'll have cheaper clean energy?"

To be sure, more low-carbon power is a good thing for the climate irrespective of who manufactures it. But the desire to reduce carbon emissions is not a justification for American complacency in the race to develop and deploy clean energy. In fact, real competition for clean tech industries could drive many of the innovations that the reduce the costs of clean technologies, and the United States full participation in the clean energy race will accelerate climate objectives.

Ultimately, while climate mitigation is clearly a motivating factor, the clean energy race is also about the development and location of new industries capable of driving economic growth in the 21st century.

The clean tech market will be large enough to accommodate multiple nations. But the burgeoning sector is hotly contested, and the greatest economic returns will accrue to those nations that move with the greatest zeal and commitment to develop their domestic industries.

Nations that gain "first-mover advantages" are sure to see high rates of return on their investment. If the United States remains sidelined while other nations quickly develop domestic clean tech industries, there will be real consequences for long-term economic competitiveness, as well as forgone jobs, tax revenues, and clean tech export opportunities.

Clean Tech Innovation: The Rise of the Rest

The second pillar of the "it's all good" argument is that the United States' capacity for innovation will keep it competitive. In Plumer's words, "China will likely continue to dominate in low-cost manufacturing, while the United States focuses more on the innovation side."

This passive resignation to China's clean tech dominance is one reason the United States is behind in clean energy today. According to a recent study by the office of U.S. Senator Ron Wyden, the U.S. renewable energy trade deficit has increased 1400% in just the last five years. While the United States invented the majority of the clean energy technologies in wide use today, they have largely been commercialized and produced elsewhere. Now, we are buying them back in spades.

The idea that there can be a clear innovation/manufacturing dichotomy between the United States and its economic rivals is complicated by another alarming trend: the United States is steadily losing its innovative edge relative to other nations.

As Fareed Zakaria describes in a recent Newsweek cover story, America emerged as a world leader in innovation after decades of massive government investment in basic science and research at our universities beginning in World War II. But since the early 1980s, federal investment in innovation, particularly in energy technology, has remained stagnant. Today, the innovation gap that for decades was a measure of U.S. economic strength is closing as other nations move quickly to develop their innovative capacity.

Recently, the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation (ITIF) ranked the United States 6th out of 40 countries in innovation capacity and internal competitiveness and dead last in the rate of improvement over the last decade. America's lead in energy innovation is slipping. The U.S. is only slightly ahead of Japan in clean energy patents and government investment in energy R&D. As a percentage of GDP, nations like Japan and South Korea actually outspend the United States on energy innovation two-to-one.

If the greatest future demand for clean energy technologies and the locus of clean energy manufacturing both develop in Asia, it is not clear that the lion's share of energy innovation will remain in the United States. In fact, some companies are already moving their research operations to China. Applied Materials, a U.S. company and the world's largest solar equipment manufacturer, recently built the world's most advanced solar R&D facility in Xian, China. Among the reasons cited by Applied Materials for the relocation to China was that China, not the U.S., "will be the biggest solar market in the world." Applied is not alone. Danish wind giant Vestas just built the world's biggest wind turbine manufacturing facility in China, which will build turbines with the company's state-of-the art technology.

America's underinvestment in energy innovation, and the simultaneous gains made by other nations should be a major wake-up call to U.S. policymakers. At the very least, it should dispel the notion that America's historic reign as a global innovation leader is a substitute for an effective economic competitiveness strategy.

The Primacy of Policy

The last leg of the "it's all good" stool is the idea that China's dominance in clean energy manufacturing is inevitable, thanks to lower labor costs.

"China," writes Christina Larson, "is becoming the wind-turbine factory to the world for much the same reasons it has long been the TV and t-shirt factory to the world: lower wages, lower land prices, fewer regulatory and other requirements."

But the production of clean technologies is a high-tech value-added industry; building solar panels, wind turbines or high-speed trains is more akin to producing semiconductors, automobiles, and airplanes than t-shirts and televisions.

Manufacturing clean tech goods requires a skilled labor force with technical expertise--the kind of labor force that is supposedly America's comparative advantage. It seems foolish to compare China's dominance in low-cost, low-skill textile manufacturing to high-tech products or complex engineering projects like the construction and localization of new nuclear power plants, which China is pursuing aggressively with assistance from foreign partners.

Historic leaders in clean tech manufacturing have all been technologically advanced, high-wage nations like Germany, Denmark, Japan, and the United States. And in spite of China's recent advances, these nations still have large and growing clean energy manufacturing industries.

Cheap labor in China certainly contributes to China's cost advantages in clean energy, as do the lower costs of land, and access to low-cost financing. But perhaps the most important element of China's comparative advantage in clean energy is smart policy.

Until clean energy technologies are as cheap as fossil fuels the clean tech industry will continue to be driven by public policy, and the Chinese government has enacted consistent, generous long-term policies that have turned the nation into the world's clean tech leader. Both the central government and provincial governments have made a long-term commitment to invest in clean energy technologies at each stage of the technology value chain. R&D expenditures have grown 20% per year each year for the past two decades, and energy is a priority R&D sector. Generous manufacturing incentives are luring foreign companies to locate in China. Laws requiring the purchase of renewable energy and technology specific deployment policies such as variable feed-in-tariffs for wind power have succeeded in building world leading clean tech markets. And investments in new infrastructure and science, math and engineering education will help lay the long-term foundation for a clean energy economy.

China's robust, targeted, and consistent public investment in technology, education and infrastructure, not cheap labor, is the primary reason for its successes in clean energy. Instead of bemoaning the higher labor costs here in the United States, clean energy advocates and policymakers should be searching for ways to strengthen our public policies and increase our investments in clean energy technologies.

A Strategy to Compete

There is no reason why the United States should not compete vigorously for the high-tech, high-wage clean energy jobs that will result from the tremendous growth of the global clean energy industry. There are few growth opportunities large enough to serve as a new foundation of economic prosperity in the United States--clean energy is one such opportunity.

But in order to effectively compete with other nations the U.S. must have a national strategy that invests in the critical areas for clean technology competitiveness--research and innovation, manufacturing, domestic markets, infrastructure, and education.

Given the United States' current comparative advantages in clean energy innovation, the United States could also gear its manufacturing sector toward demonstrating and commercializing the next generation of clean energy technologies. Leaping ahead of the competition could help American firms capitalize on new clean technologies that can be manufactured here and exported abroad.

The promise of clean energy economy is real. But without a real clean energy strategy to make the United States competitive, so is the possibility that the large majority of new jobs and industries will be created outside of the United States. No amount of conference organizing jobs will replace the lost opportunity to build a vibrant U.S. clean tech manufacturing sector. The race is on--it's past time that the United States got in the game.


Devon Swezey is Project Director at Breakthrough Institute and co-author of "Rising Tigers, Sleeping Giant," a major report on international clean tech competitiveness. Follow him on twitter @devonswezey.

Read more!

Wisconsin: Focus on energy education

By Danny Sptizberg and Stephen Collins

Earlier this week, fellow Daily Cardinal opinion writer Anthony Cefali posed a question: “How do we [in American education] inspire our science program to shoot for the moon, or at least our own modern equivalent?” Well, we think we have an answer.

Look no further than clean energy. Some are calling it the biggest market opportunity in history. Experts of all stripes have repeatedly stated that the nation that wins the clean-energy race will be the nation that leads the 21st century economy. Discovering and implementing cheap, clean and reliable energy technologies is our generation’s final frontier.

But, as Cefali asked, how do we get there? President Obama has proposed doing so by increasing funding for energy education and training through a program called RE-ENERGYSE (short for REgaining our ENERGY Science and Engineering Edge). More than 100 organizations, including the University of Wisconsin-Madison, signed a letter last summer urging Congress to support the program, which would augment energy education in universities, training schools, community colleges and even K-12 teacher education. It’s easy to see why: UW-Madison professor and energy policy expert Greg Nemet said that he thinks “maybe the biggest opportunity is to take advantage of the fact that we have tens of thousands of students here who could potentially be working on [creating a clean energy economy].” However, Congress ignored last summer’s call to action by rejecting Obama’s $115 million budget request for RE-ENERGYSE.

Despite Congress’ lack of support for energy education and training, hope is not lost for Wisconsin. The Wisconsin State Legislature is currently considering a bill dubbed the Clean Energy Jobs Act (CEJA). CEJA rolls out a policy to ramp up renewables to provide 25 percent of Wisconsin’s electricity by 2025. This policy, known as a Renewable Portfolio Standard (RPS), makes sense. The RPS ensures a stable, long-term market for renewable energy, thus creating market opportunities and driving investment in wind and other low-carbon technologies. Investment in turn makes clean energy cheaper and lowers utility bills. Perhaps more important, the state’s Economic and Policy Staff has estimated CEJA would create more than 15,000 jobs. In addition to more jobs, the bill provides an opportunity to develop smarter students and a stronger workforce.

Why add a provision to the bill to increase funding for energy education and training? Because the RPS alone will not create the low-carbon energy system Wisconsin needs. The Governor’s Task Force on Global Warming recommended that Wisconsin implement “substantial increases in federal and state research and development (R&D) for greenhouse gas (GHG) reduction technologies.” R&D is particularly crucial to figuring out ways to modernize the electricity grid, store wind and solar power and invent breakthrough technologies. CEJA could support R&D by giving UW-Madison—recently ranked among the top 10 universities for cleantech—and other Wisconsin institutions the funds to advance our energy system. To sustain the R&D of clean energy, CEJA must also invest in Wisconsin’s students. At a recent town hall, President Obama said: “We’re not going to be able to ramp up solar and wind to suddenly replace every other energy source ... [W]e’ve got to look at how to make existing technologies and options better.” To meet our clean energy goals over the next century, Wisconsin will need a new, well-educated generation of researchers.

To meet the short-term objectives laid out by the CEJA, Wisconsin must also invest in its current workforce. Along the lines of the proposals laid out by the Governor’s Task Force on Global Warming, we propose that CEJA directly fund the training of Wisconsinites to create knowledgeable workers who can construct Wisconsin’s clean energy economy over the coming years.

We realize that with Wisconsin currently short on cash, it may be fiscally difficult to add an additional program to CEJA. If adding our proposal to CEJA does indeed prove politically impossible, we recommend incorporating it in the next state budget. Now or in the near future, Wisconsin needs to increase energy education. Gaining a competitive edge in clean energy requires not only opening markets with policies like a RPS, but taking advantage of those markets by creating talented researchers and a skilled workforce.

As the saying goes, if you teach a man to fish, he will build a clean energy future. If we fail to invest in today’s students, we will miss a critical opportunity and give other countries a head start in the global clean energy race. This is our chance to lead the generation of a low-carbon economy.

Stephen Collins and Danny Spitzberg are pursuing master’s degrees in public affairs and environmental studies, respectively. Please send all responses to opinion@dailycardinal.com.

(This article was originally published in the Daily Cardinal)

Read more!

A Big What If – Finding Clean Energy Dollars in Obama’s War Chest


Whether you support, find yourself wobbling in between or vehemently oppose (like me) the continued occupation of Iraq and the expanded occupation of Afghanistan, odds are you join me in the sentiment that Obama’s newly released $708 billion 2011 defense budget is not only obscene, but also represents a disastrous sense of fiscal priorities considering the current state of America. In fact, I am willing to bet my bottom dollar that if the veils of misinformation were removed, and American political dialogue shifted into the realm of the somewhat logical, most common Americans would agree with that sentiment of obscenity (especially our “fiscally conservative” brethren).

This new budget represents a historic high in military spending, even surpassing President George W. Bush who took us into the margins of the criminally insane with his post September 11th defense budgets. Yes that’s right- our new visionary and “progressive” president is throwing more dollars at the Pentagon than good ole W. In fact Obama’s 2011 budget is the largest proposed defense spending since World War II.

According to the Center for American Progress, this proposed spending represents a 3.4% increase from the 2010 fiscal year baseline defense spending, and an increase of $173 billion (36%) from just five years ago. A new study by The Center for a New American Security puts the numbers in perspective by estimating that after adjusting for inflation, Obama’s new budget is 13 percent higher than the defense budget at the peak of the Korean War, 33 percent higher than at the peak of the Vietnam War, 23 percent higher than at the peak of the Cold War, and 64 percent higher than the Cold War's average. We now comprise close to 47% of global defense spending and around 8 times what China (the second place finisher) is currently spending on defense.

Although past promises from both candidate Obama and President Obama to cut wasteful defense programs, some of the most costly programs are growing. Fred Kaplan breaks it down best in a new Slate article:

“For the most part, the big-ticket weapons programs are on the rise: $25 billion for 10 new ships, including two Virginia-class submarines and two DDG-51 destroyers (to make up for his killing the more "advanced" DDG-1000 last year, perhaps). Gates is requesting another $10 billion on missile defense (a billion more than last year). And he is requesting $11 billion for 43 more F-35 fighter planes.”

Read more!

Tuesday, February 09, 2010

Educating the Energy Generation


Originally published by The Stanford Daily

Last week, the Obama administration introduced a proposal that every college student in the country should know about. It represents the nation’s first comprehensive federal program for clean energy education, and it is a critical step toward regaining American leadership in one of the most important industries of our time.

Over the past two years, a growing numbers of experts have called for federal programs to develop the country’s clean energy workforce. In April 2009, President Obama took up these calls by announcing the first nationwide initiative to inspire and train young Americans “to tackle the single most important challenge of their generation — the need to develop cheap, abundant, clean energy and accelerate the transition to a low carbon economy.”

The proposal, called RE-ENERGYSE (Regaining our Energy Science and Engineering Edge), is part of the administration’s 2011 budget request, which will be considered by Congress in the months ahead. With oversight by the Department of Energy and National Science Foundation, it would educate thousands of clean energy scientists and engineers, beginning with $74 million for energy-related programs at universities, community and technical colleges and K-12 schools.

“In order to make the leap in global energy technology leadership, the U.S. must also make the leap in energy education,” states the Department of Energy’s proposal (PDF). “This effort will help universities and community colleges develop cutting edge programs, with redesigned and new curricula to produce tens of thousands of other highly skilled U.S. workers who can sustain American excellence in clean energy in industry, trades, academia, the federal government and National Laboratories.”

The U.S. is falling behind in the rapidly growing clean energy industry, and our educational system and workforce is not prepared to compete. The U.S. energy industry expects that half its employees will retire over the next decade, and while Stanford has significant programs in the area, the majority of our colleges and universities lack degree programs focused on energy. Americans students earned only 11 percent of the world’s 4 million science and engineering bachelor’s degrees in 2006, compared to 21 percent in China and 19 percent in the European Union. These degrees are only about one-third of U.S. bachelor’s degrees, compared to 63 percent in Japan, 53 percent in China and 51 percent in Singapore.

Fortunately, the U.S. has a history of catching up in strategic industries, and federal investment in education is a core strategy. Fifty years ago, immediately after the Soviet Union launched Sputnik, the United States mobilized to lead the space race and regain our scientific and technological competitiveness. The National Defense Education Act of 1958, for example, trained thousands of young scientists and engineers who helped put a man on the moon and develop the technologies that catapulted our world into the Information Age.

In 2008, my colleagues and I at the Breakthrough Institute proposed a National Energy Education Act, modeled after this legislation for the clean energy sector. RE-ENERGYSE is a significant step toward such a full-scale program. The federal government has started to address the need for green technician training, but it has not implemented a higher education strategy to keep the U.S. at the leading edge of energy science, technology and innovation. According to the Department of Energy, “The U.S. ranks behind other major nations in making the transitions required to educate students for emerging energy trades, research efforts and other professions to support the future energy technology mix.”

That is why an alliance of student and youth-led groups, including groups at Stanford University, is launching the ReEnergyse Campaign to mobilize and empower young people to advance this proposal through Congress in 2010. In the current political climate, RE-ENERGYSE needs a strong base of support to pass Congress, and as the primary stakeholders in the program, young people can be particularly influential in organizing a coalition of supporters and directly voicing their concerns to members of Congress.

This national campaign, coordinated by Americans for Energy Leadership, will feature a variety of activities, including a student government presidents sign-on letter organized by Stanford’s David Gobaud, a RE-ENERGYSE lobby day in DC, meetings and public events with members of Congress, op-eds in newspapers and online outlets, research reports and articles about energy education programs, video and photo petitioning and more. Through smart organizing and advocacy, young people can be the driving force to achieve this program.

The global clean energy race represents one of the greatest challenges and opportunities for American leadership in a generation, and now is a critical moment. If we do not immediately implement a national strategy for energy leadership — including smart investments to educate the energy generation — we will miss a historic opportunity to strengthen our economy, create new jobs, improve our energy security and lead the world in confronting climate change. The choice should be clear.

Read more!

Saturday, February 06, 2010

The Cleantech Revolution: “Largest Market Opportunity in the History of the Planet”?

By Ishan Nath
Cross-posted from LeadEnergy.org

A special three-part series in last week's San Jose Mercury News, entitled "The Cleantech Revolution," highlighted the enormous economic opportunity in the clean-tech sector and warned that the U.S. is quickly falling behind while Asia seeks to gain global market dominance.

In its analysis of the clean technology market, the Mercury's rhetoric is grand and its data convincing. The first part of the series begins:

“Cleantech is poised to be the valley's third great wave of innovation — not just the next big thing, but perhaps the biggest thing ever. Confronting the peril of greenhouse gases and climate change happens to be a multi-trillion-dollar business opportunity.”

The numbers provided support this claim: U.S. yearly utility bills exceed $1 trillion annually and the global energy and transportation market is estimated at $7 trillion. The wind and solar industries -- valued at $80 billion in 2008 -- are projected to triple in 10 years and employ 2.6 million people. Smart-grid technology, according to Morgan Stanley, will grow to $100 billion by 2030 and Cisco Systems believes smart-grid communications infrastructure could be worth $20 billion in the next 5 years.

In a nod to its geographic location, the paper focuses primarily on Silicon Valley's role in the industry. And local experts have a strong take on the subject:
"When it comes to cleantech, we have the largest market opportunity in the history of the planet driven by global climate change, resource constraints and energy independence," said Dallas Kachan, managing director of Cleantech Group. "Silicon Valley is critical to this revolution, but it does not occupy the throne it once did."

"Energy is the biggest opportunity Silicon Valley has ever seen," declared T.J. Rodgers, the founder of Cypress Semiconductor and chairman of SunPower, a leading maker of photovoltaic panels to produce solar energy.

Much of the progress being made in the U.S. can be attributed to venture-capital funding, a development for which the Mercury has encouraging news. Venture capital investment in clean-technology grew from 3% to 25% of overall investment over the last few years, expanding from $908 million in 2002 to $8.5 billion in 2008. Significantly, California garnered 40% of the world's funding in 2009. The Bay Area's 7,000 renewable energy jobs make it the country's biggest hotspot.

So with all this venture-capital flowing in, the American cleantech industry must be in good position, right? Wrong. The Mercury makes a strong appeal for the alarm bells to start going off in Washington about the state of American competitiveness.

The report declares:
“In other tech revolutions of recent decades, Silicon Valley became the uncontested global leader. The region's ability to innovate its way to the top in cleantech, though, is far from guaranteed. Competition is fierce and global, with trillions of dollars at stake.”

True, the Valley has benefited from venture capital funding and has built-in advantages with decades of expertise in semiconductors and software - vital to solar energy production and grid integration strategies - but there are simply too many disadvantages to ignore.

For one thing, the American education system isn't doing the clean energy revolution any favors, as noted venture capitalist Vinod Khosla observes:
"We (in Silicon Valley) don't have a natural advantage in talent — like chemical engineers, fermentation experts, engine designers and physicists."

This statement underscores the urgency for RE-ENERGYSE, the comprehensive energy education proposal from the Department of Energy that a growing number of organizations are mobilizing behind. But solving the problem doesn't end there.

Like several other sources -- including "Rising Tigers, Sleeping Giant," the first comprehensive comparison of Asian vs. U.S. clean-tech competitiveness -- this report outlines the extensive foreign investment in clean-energy, particularly in China. Pointing to annual investment in excess of $100 billion, renewable energy requirements, and tax incentives, the Mercury shows how China has already overtaken the lead in key markets such as solar. Once again, testimony backs the evidence, starting with a prominently supported letter to Energy Secretary Steven Chu.
A group of valley tech executives, including former Intel CEO Andy Grove, recently sent a letter to Chu urging the energy secretary to "sound the alarm bell to make America aware — clearly and unequivocally — of how rapidly other nations, particularly China, are moving on clean energy.

"Unless we move quickly and commit substantial resources on a sustained basis, we risk becoming an energy also-ran, and risk developing a new dependency," said the letter

Only 5 of the world's top 30 wind, solar, and battery companies are in the United States. And on the current trajectory of only about $4 billion in annual federal investment in clean energy R&D -- far below the $15 billion recommended by Nobel Laureate scientists -- that trend will continue:
"Unless there's a dramatic shift in national policy in the United States, the road to success in cleantech most likely goes through Beijing," said Matthew Lewis, spokesman for the San Francisco office of ClimateWorks Foundation, an international philanthropic network that promotes clean energy. "From a policy perspective, they are doing everything right."

And as the U.S. continues not to do everything right, the need for investment remains so acute because the technologies are still so new.
Every aspect of cleantech "needs new science," said Kevin Surace, CEO of Serious Materials.

Without adequate federal funding, this new science will come out of Beijing, as the Chinese aim to use "cleantech as a gold rush that will propel Chinese companies to world-domineering status.”

This prospect need not be seen entirely as a threat as Peggy Liu, founder of the Joint US-China Collaboration on Clean Energy, sees it: "I'm afraid people are setting up China as the enemy," she said. "You need to treat China like a partner."

Liu is probably right: clean-energy development is not a zero-sum game and US-China cooperation could benefit from the competitive advantages in both countries.

But the way it stands right now, the United States is standing still while other countries take advantage of "not just the next big thing, but perhaps the biggest thing ever."

Read more!

Wednesday, February 03, 2010

WEBINAR: A Conversation with Stewart Brand

A Conversation with Stewart Brand
Live Webcast with a Pioneering Environmentalist
February 18, 1 PM EST / 10 AM PST


In Whole Earth Discipline: An Ecopragmatist Manifesto, lifelong environmentalist Stewart Brand lays out what has been called “a mind-blowing vision for the planet's salvation: migration to the cities, power generated by mini-nuclear reactors, healthier crops through genetic engineering.” Brand, who created the 1960s and 1970s classic Whole Earth Catalog, believes that big cities (and not rural villages) are green, that nuclear power is green and that biotechnology is green. And, he says, we must take seriously the idea that geoengineering may be needed to adapt to climate change.

Brand’s book has been widely praised. Paul Hawken calls it “likely one of the most original and important books of the century.…” Edward O. Wilson says it is “ominous and exhilirating.” Larry Brilliant says it is “an absolutely seminal work, extraordinarily well written, a tour de force of so many interconnected worlds and lives and studies.”

In an interview with Energy Collective blogger and FORTUNE contributing editor Marc Gunther, Brand will talk about the evolution of his thinking, the research that went into the book and the reaction he’s getting from his friends in the environmental movement. We’ll also allow plenty of time for questions from listeners.

Register today for the free webinar conversation with Stewart Brand, February 18, 2010, 1 PM EST/10 AM PST

Read more!