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February 1, 2015

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J. Patrick Coolican:

Renewable energy becomes fodder for the culture war at just the wrong moment


Leila Navidi

Copper Mountain Solar One and Eldorado Solar are seen on the left and Nevada Solar One on the right of Eldorado Valley Road off U.S. 95 in Boulder City on Thursday, Feb. 10, 2011.

J. Patrick Coolican

J. Patrick Coolican

There’s no point hiding from it, especially in Nevada: The clean energy movement, despite rapid gains in recent years, faces a potential crisis as government support withers.

I can hear the cheering from many conservatives, whose latest foray into identity politics is contempt for clean energy (more on that later) while either ignorantly or willfully ignoring decades of massive government support for fossil fuels and hydroelectric power such as the Hoover Dam.

But let’s turn to the crisis at hand, which was recently laid bare in a report from the Brookings Institution, the Breakthrough Institute and World Resources Institute, “Beyond Boom & Bust: Putting clean tech on a path to subsidy independence.”

By 2014, federal clean tech spending will decline 75 percent, from a high of $44.3 billion in 2009. Absent new policy action, money for deployment of clean energy technology will decline nearly 80 percent. And by the end of 2014, 70 percent of federal policies that promote clean energy industries will have expired.

The boom-and-bust cycle in clean energy has happened before, as a new generation realizes its reliance on foreign fossil fuels is dangerous and so invests in domestic clean energy, only to pull the plug a few years later. Without action — not just maintaining at least some of the money but also more strategic policies — we’re headed for another bust cycle, including bankruptcies, consolidation and market contractions, according to the report.

That’s the bad news. The good news is that the past few years have brought significant successes. Renewable electricity generation doubled from 2006 to 2011, according to the report. The price of wind, solar and other clean energy technologies fell — often dramatically. Employment in the sector rose 12 percent — that’s 70,000 jobs — from 2007 to 2010 despite the recession.

The price reductions are not enough to put clean energy on competitive footing with fossil fuels, especially given the natural gas boom and its collapse in price.

The report recommends some continued government support while calling for reforms so that money spurs further technological improvement and price declines. “Unfortunately, clean tech deployment policies today often closely resemble crop supports, offering a flat production subsidy for any clean energy produced, rather than the demanding military procurement policies that delivered steady improvements and the eventual mass-adoption of everything from radios, microchips, and jet engines, to gas turbines, lasers and computers,” the report says.

The report also notes that clean energy is nowhere close to parity when it comes to federal research dollars: We spend $19 billion on space research and exploration, $34 billion on health research and $81 billion on defense research, but just $4.7 billion per year on clean energy research.

Does this make sense?

There are other strong ideas in the report, backed by data, and I recommend you check it out.

Unfortunately, I have a difficult time imagining a rational energy policy going forward because the conservative movement has made opposition to clean energy — opposition sometimes backed by fossil fuel dollars — a new mission.

(Let me quickly point out: When they bark about government subsidies, they ignore the aforementioned huge subsidies for fossil fuels now and especially in the past. When they rightfully condemn some of the waste of the government’s clean energy programs, they also ignore the massive waste routinely reported out of the Pentagon. Just at random, here’s a New York Times story about a government auditor finding that management failures added at least $70 billion to projected costs of major defense projects during the past two years. That’s billion with a “b.”

And of course they discount the scientific consensus on global climate change.)

For conservatives, renewable energy seems to have become another front in the culture war, as much emotional as empirical. Like gay marriage and National Public Radio and California and President Barack Obama, they find clean energy repugnant.

Once you arrive at that stage of conservative opposition, you have almost no chance of reversing it.

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  1. The goals established by the renewable energy crowd are ridiculous and not really attainable. That's why it's not working. Solar and wind farms are a boondoggle and too expensive. Using food crops for fuel is immoral. Also what is wrong with using our fossil fuel resources? If you think they are going away in our lifetimes you are mistaken.

    I see the renewable energy crowd as wanting to snap their fingers and make it suddenly appear. That's not realistic. There isn't a real market for it now. There will be eventually but not soon.

    As a lifelong Las Vegan I have always wondered why there wasn't a requirement on new homes to have a solar water heater. It's not an onerous thing and it makes sense. It would be something a homeowner could look at and see the energy savings. Make it easier for a homeowner to put up solar panels or a wind turbine. They wouldn't power the house but it'd help. Solar panels are getting more efficient and will get there, it's just a bit pricey now. That's all renewables are ever going to do though. Until we have fusion power or can produce hydrogen efficiently we won't be off fossil fuels.

  2. Uncle Sam burns more oil than just about every nation on earth....combined........Maybe they should start cutting back first.....

  3. By burning fossil fuels we are reversing a natural process that made our planet inhabitable for the life that currently lives on it. The original source of the carbon we are burning and converting to carbon dioxide was ...carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.

    Somewhere there is a tipping point, where the increase in carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases will become self-sustaining regardless of human activity. When that point is reached, the alleged economic disadvantage of renewable enrgy will be the least of our problems.

    Happy Earth Day!

  4. There has been too little done in the way of education. You don't see the government nor the green energy folks going to our schools and giving any kind of presentations about it, future careers in the industry, or anything. This is part of the problem.

    Building codes should be forward-thinking, and compell solar, wind, or geothermal units to be a part of a new building. Since costs are difficult to manage on retrofits, the government should be doing a better job of finding more flexible ways to offer green energy generation to homeowners.

    Not enough has been proactively done, hence the lack of interest.

    Blessings and Peace,

  5. Robert Hess,
    Please post the hard numbers and sources for your opinions.

  6. Comment removed by moderator. Name Calling

  7. There is so much ignorance surrounding clean energy. Here are some facts about the current cost and benefits of photovoltaic systems, from a homeowner's point of view:

    With the incredible solar resources we have in Southern Nevada, a 5KW AC PV system will power an efficient 2,000 sq ft home with enough left over to drive an electric vehicle about 10,000 miles per year around town. It will save about $1,400 a year in electricity costs and roughly another $1,600 a year in gasoline (compared to a 25MPG gas-burning vehicle).

    That system can now be installed for as low as $20K (depending on site specifics) before any incentives by well-trained, certified, union electricians making a good living wage.

    That scenario provides simple payback of six years not counting the inevitable escalating cost of fossil fuels which are ultimately a completely NON-renewable source of energy.

    Now, for those savvy enough to understand that any self-respecting business takes advantage of incentives whenever possible (indeed they constantly lobby for them), there is a 30% federal tax credit for PV that reduces the simple payback period of this example to less than five years.

    So an investment of $14,000 in a personal PV system returns $3,000 a year or 21%. It is just about the most dependable and safest place to put your money. How many of you get 21% on your savings account or any other safe, rock-solid investment?

    This small investment will save the owner over $100,000 during it's estimated lifetime. If you don't stay in your home, no problem. There are solid studies that show that resale value of homes with PV systems and low energy bills are high enough to more than cover the cost of installation.

    Clean energy is the only economically-responsible way to power your life. As an added benefit, that 5KW system will avoid the production of over half a million pounds of CO2 and save over a million gallons of water.

    I'm not going into the cost of financing since many have enough savings to redirect their investment and if not, there are plenty of other options. The bottom line is that renewable energy, when coupled with energy efficiency (which is a no-brainer), is one of the best investments one can make.

    It is a win-win.

    How do I know this? I have outlined the results of my direct, personal experience. The numbers are real and I'm smiling all the way to the bank.

  8. When we take the cost of Oil we do not look at the entire picture. Oil is substantially subsidized by the American Military to secure the safety of Oil Flowing to us from the Middle East. Carbon from Oil (as well as Coal and Oil Shale) creates significant Health Costs with massive increases in Asthma and other Bronchial Infections. Gulf Seafood from eye socket less Shrimp to Crabs to animals that humans consume that eat them, will cause health issues for decades to come. The current estimate is that these "Subsidies", not even counting the Billions in Tax Dollars given to the Oil Corporations, would add $ 8.00 Per Gallon.
    So why should I, driving a high mileage car subsidize all the SUVs with people driving with their foot flooring the pedal all the time?
    Let the People that use the Product pay the True and Full Cost of It.
    Mass implementation of alternatives will bring the prices down quicker than what you saw with Flat Screen TV's, end our OIL Wars, Free us from subsidies to countries we don't like, bring our troops home and balance our Budget without going crazy on New Taxes or Service Cuts. Let's move to Fast Forward - FAST!

  9. The Iraq war was about oil It cost one trillion dollars.

    The Afghanistan war is about natural gas. It to will cost 1 trillion dollars.

    If we were energy independent, these wars and the hatred of the US that they created would not have occurred.

    This is the real cost of oil.

  10. Obama's problem is he's too transparent.

    He should just do what we've always done, come up with a military purpose for the development of the technology. Then refer to the allocated funds as defense spending. Once a marketable technology is developed, sell it to the public.

    No one would care or notice.

  11. The "drill, baby, drill" crowd got a rude awakening from the BP-Gulf of Mexico oil spill ... or rather, they should have. Actually the anti-planet Earth idiots didn't learn a thing from that or any other man made ecological disaster.

    More corporate welfare tax subsidies for super-profitable Big Oil? Of course. Up is down and down is up.

  12. Long term memory in this country is less than ~2 years. If magic doesn't happen with the effects of a new technology, the rapture and interest wears off quick and the idea is discarded. Measurements, pictures, analysis mean nothing. The consumer is waiting for a gasoline substitute that will burn in their 15 year old Suburban. If not, the feasible substitute is discarded.

    Biofuels will never replace gasoline in terms of specific energy or quantity but they will have the least negative impact on the atmosphere and food supply, but when THAT emergency unfolds and continues to magnify it will grab everyone's attention, even if they resist.

  13. The fossil fuel industry has been getting huge amounts of government assistance for a century, and is trying to hold on to it. According to a recent DBL Investors report, as of 2009 the oil and gas industries have cumulatively received $446.96 billion in federal subsidies since 1918 and the nuclear industry received $185.38 billion since 1947, whereas renewables only received $5.93 billion since 1994.
    This country has always supported energy innovation, helping new energy sources mature and succeed. Government built pipelines, gave tax breaks, set up protective tariffs, protected waterways, and took other action to speed up oil and gas extraction, and later nuclear development, so we could win wars and build our nation. We have given government assistance to polluting fuels for more than a century.

  14. I can not take anyone that uses the President's full name like a curse seriously, in any context.

  15. And then we have this story today:

    It seems NVEnergy spent $6M on a wind project only to see it get killed by the EPA or some such for environmental reasons. Oh, the irony! (And, oh, the pain we'll feel in our rates when NVE finds a way to recoup that money!)

    Of all the forms of green energy, I really dislike wind. Not only is it a threat to birds, but those wind farms are an eyesore on the landscape.

  16. Patrick,

    Green energy tech has been on heavy subsidies for more than 20 years... pulling the plug is the right thing to do. In fact, we should end all corporate welfare in the U.S.

  17. Renewable energy will only work when the government stops using taxpayers money to subsidies Obama supporters and the liberal eccoterrorist agenda stops sucking trillions upon trillions from the companies who wish to build for their permits and studies that prove to be fruitless and a waste of time and energy.

    What liberals and their mindless trolls fail to acknowledge is that they've created a cash cow to feed their sick minds with their so called global warming hype and all the crap they've drummed up to create jobs where only a nutcase would believe the garbage they spew from their lips.

    If they actually believed in their own regulations and permit process, they'd be living in grass huts, using horse and buggy, wearing fig leaves, eating only organic food they grow, and all the crap they tell themselves. When they start practicing what they preach, maybe people would take their agenda seriously. Until this time occurs, liberals have no use to the world.

    Here's one for you nutcases, why don't you build a tidal generator off all the coastal waterways and use that power for the communities? I know why, it makes sense and it brings down the cost and removes the hysteria and cash cow god from performing the environmental impact studies and all the garbage permit processes from the equation. In other words, unless the liberal agenda is fed a few trillion, permits never happen, when the trillions are given, poof, permits granted. This makes no ecumenical sense to businesses and that's the very reason they're leaving America and your lazy bungers are sitting at home sucking off the system.

  18. It seems to me energy could be transferred from fossil to solar/wind if wanted. Solar systems for hot water and solar electric that are tie in, not stand alone, would cut the need for power generation at the plants and put the power directly at the user. This is along the post of Socrates. these may not totally power a home but would cut consumption down dramatically from the main grid. Instead of dumping billions into large solar farms and transmission lines owners of buildings should be ale to get some of those loans instead.

  19. I wonder how many other products in the world, other than gas for cars, depends on fossil fuels?

  20. We don't have coal, oil or natural gas supplies in Nevada. We have abundant geothermal, adequate wind and gobs of solar resources available. Why don't we use what God gave us? My PV experence is not as extensive as Mr. Lamy, but here it goes.

    On a trip to the Philippines my checked baggage was a set of solar panels from Thank you US Air and Korea Air for bending your rules! We traveled by Ceres bus and motorcycle sidecar taxi to a small village in north Cebu, to a home with at best an intermittent supply of electricty. We installed the panels on the roof, purchased a battery and inverter and wired up the home. It powers their lights and small appliances.

    Fast forward two years and the mayor of Medellin applied for a grant to duplicate this on a large scale. A small island, Gibitngil, was powered by a generator. Service was for a few hours a day and expensive. Now over three hundred homes have solar power, with battery storage.

    Please don't be so short sighted to leave emerging market to others with vision, be it the Chinese or whoever. We don't have the educational base to become leaders, but do our best to drive this to our benefit. To drive up utilization and drive cost down. This can't be left to the Fed's, it up to us, the people of Nevada.

    Dwayne Hussein Morton

  21. BOTOX the money we NV energy rate payers are paying Enron should be properly mentioned ; since any renewable energy losses are miniscule in comparison.

  22. Jim wrote this:
    "First, if all available area was in use there would still not be enough energy produced to fill our needs using solar and wind."

    I ask for his calculations that prove this statement.

  23. ...And cue the crickets.


    and other chapters available. Jim Reid could actually learn but won't.

  25. You are welcome Joe. Have a clean air day!