Wednesday, August 17, 2011

National Journal: Surviving the Coming Clean Tech Crash

Over at the National Journal's Energy forum, my Breakthrough Institute colleague Alex Trembath and I have a new submission to their ongoing discussion asking "How Can Washington Green America's Economy?" Here's the full text...

Before discussing the best way to green the economy, it’s important to note that the U.S. economy has been greening steadily over the past three years. Buoyed by the policies established and extended by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA), the largest federal investment in clean tech in American history, the clean energy industry has experienced precipitous growth, as documented by Mark Muro and colleagues at the Brookings Metro program in their recent "Sizing the Clean Economy" report.

Unfortunately, the path of progress may be coming to an end. Our research shows that over 70% of the federal policies and funding support for clean energy that has catalyzed the recent growth of the industry is expected to lapse in the next three years, or has already expired. And make no mistake—clean energy is an industry dependent on government subsidy: tax credits, depreciation and other subsidies compose one third or more of the total after-tax value of most solar, wind or other renewable energy projects, for example. So while ARRA provided a “down payment” on a green economy, as these public investments fade away, we are now more likely to witness a clean tech crash than a clean tech revolution.

As the current programs supporting clean energy, like the Production Tax Credit (PTC) and Section 1603 Treasury Grants, approach their expiration, there are a number of steps the federal government can and must take to avert an impending industry crash.

The first would be to get serious about the long-term energy innovation challenge. Until clean energy becomes cheap and cost competitive without subsidy, the pace of clean energy growth will remain constrained and the markets will face continual risk of industry busts if subsidy and policy support changes. We must treat energy innovation with the same priority we afford other national innovation quests, such as the Apollo or Manhattan Projects or the quest to cure cancer. We must invest far more -- eventually on the order of $15 billion annually -- and far more wisely -- restructuring America's energy innovation system and supporting effective new policy models such as the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E), Energy Frontier Research Centers (EFRCs), and new public-private regional innovation consortia.

Second, Congress can establish a Clean Energy Deployment Administration (CEDA). CEDA would act as a public investment bank whose mission is to help leverage private-sector investment to bring emerging, innovative clean technologies to commercial maturity. CEDA would bridge the commercialization “Valley of Death” and provide a viable and predictable development path for technologies from the laboratory to grid-scale deployment. The Congressional Budget Office calculates that the agency would cost just $1.1 billion over the next four years. While leveraging billions more in private sector investment, the public bank would return profits from investments and financial products to the fund, making CEDA self-sustaining over time.

Another needed policy change is to reform the current clean energy deployment subsidy regime for maturing energy technologies, which today is comprised of a hodgepodge of tax credits like the PTC and the Investment Tax Credit, depreciation benefits and grants that primarily incentivize firms to deploy more of the same, current-generation technology. Instead, we need a smarter new deployment mechanism that is disciplined and designed to drive technology innovation to decrease the unsubsidized cost of clean energy so that it can be competitive without perpetual subsidy. Such a policy could augment a national renewable or clean energy standard (RES/CES) with a set of technology tiers based on technology maturity, which would provide the incentive for utilities to adopt and deploy clean energy technologies across a range of maturities, and demand continual cost reductions from technology firms over time. One way to augment this smart deployment policy would be with a small price on carbon, wires fee on electricity, or oil import fee, which instead of returning a dividend to consumers would generate dedicated revenues for a federal energy R&D fund to help support the continual innovation needed to get clean tech costs down to parity with fossil competitors.

The fate of many ARRA policies remains uncertain, and the unpredictable political machinations of the “supercongress” and ongoing deficit debate in Washington bring yet more volatility to the clean tech policy debate. Nobody expects a second down payment on the green economy on the scale of the last several years. But as current subsidy support runs out, Washington must support the industry by investing more and differently in clean energy innovation to maintain America’s position in the global clean tech race and avoid an ongoing cycle of clean tech boom-and-bust in the future.

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