In the new issue of Foreign Affairs, on the magazine’s website now and on newsstands May 1, I write that the time has come for a smarter approach to renewable energy. The essay, “Tough Love for Renewable Energy: Making Wind and Solar Power Affordable,” argues that the renewable-energy push has been sloppy so far — and that it can be fixed.
Over the years, as governments and investors have spent big money on renewable power, they have slashed the cost of many renewable technologies. But they have failed to fundamentally change the global energy mix. Now, with technologies such as wind and solar power having matured, it’s time for the world’s approach to them to grow up too.
The Foreign Affairs piece calls for an economically hard-nosed approach to renewable power — an unemotional strategy that recognizes that wind and solar have to compete with many other energy solutions and that today’s big energy challenges are fundamentally tougher than those of the past.
It argues that the prudent response to a variety of challenges facing renewable power — including last fall’s bankruptcy of solar-panel maker Solyndra, which received a $535 million federal loan guarantee — is not to kill the renewables push, but to whip it into shape.
From the essay:
Critics of taxpayer-sponsored investment in renewable energy point to Solyndra as an example of how misguided the push for solar and wind power has become. Indeed, the drive has been sloppy, failing to derive the most bang for the buck. In the United States, the government has schizophrenically ramped up and down support for renewable power, confusing investors and inhibiting the technologies’ development; it has also structured its subsidies in inefficient ways. In Europe, where support for renewable power has been more sustained, governments have often been too generous, doling out subsidies so juicy they have proved unaffordable. And in China, the new epicenter of the global renewable-power push, a national drive to build up indigenous wind and solar companies has spurred U.S. allegations of trade violations and has done little to curb China’s reliance on fossil fuels. But these challenges don’t justify ending the pursuit of renewable power; they justify reforming it. It is time to push harder for renewable power, but to push in a smarter way.
The essay lays out several elements of a smarter renewable-power strategy:
- Rather than picking short-term technological or corporate winners, set a broad direction for a cleaner and more-secure U.S. energy system and then let that newly defined market play out. The broad policy direction might include more funding for advanced energy research; prioritizing improvements in energy efficiency, because wasting energy from any source makes no sense; and slapping a price on carbon emissions – though the effectiveness of a carbon price would depend on the details.
- Rationalize the current patchwork of conflicting subsidies for all energy sources – a patchwork the U.S. has stitched together over decades.
- Restructure renewable-power subsidies to make them more efficient – for instance, auction subsidies to companies that agree to produce the largest amount of electricity at the lowest price.
- Simplify the permit process for wind and solar projects, including the installation of transmission lines, to trim costs.
- In the push for “green jobs,” don’t focus on manufacturing commodity equipment that other countries can make less expensively. Focus on the higher end of the market, developing next-generation technologies and business models that play to America’s strengths and that have the potential to make wind and solar power truly cost competitive with fossil fuels.
- Globally, resist the urge to impose tariffs and local-content requirements on renewable-energy equipment. Tough competition, as long as it’s fair competition, will produce the most cost-effective products.
Renewable energy often is debated in almost religious terms — a question of belief or disbelief, of yes or no. But the real question isn’t yes or no; it’s how. Today, as renewable power comes of age, it needs some tough love.
I hope you find the essay thought provoking — a fact-based assessment that challenges tired ideologies on both the left and the right. I invite you to read it, share it, and let me know what you think.