Making energy innovation part of climate policy debate

It is time for energy innovation policy to become a priority in our policy nuance and our elevator pitches, Stepp writes, because the nation cannot face the challenges of climate change without it.

Apolinar Fonseca/The Sentinel/AP/File
A worker looks over solar panels at the NRG Solar and Eurus Energy America Corp.’s 45-megawatt solar farm in Avenal, Calif. We should collectively and aggressively work for clean energy to be a national priority to “lift all boats,” – both innovation and deployment of today’s technology alike, Stepp writes.

Innovation vs. Deployment

One of the continuing debates among climate and energy analysts and advocates is whether public policy should emphasize innovation or deployment. A hardy round of wonky discussion brought to light the nuances of each point of view, but it still leaves one lingering issue: how do we make energy innovation part of advocates’ climate policy pitch?

There are two levels to the debate between innovation analysts and deployment advocates. The most significant debate is over policy nuance and is what has been in the blogging spotlight recently. The debate logic chain typically plays out broadly this way:

  • Mitigating climate change requires cutting global carbon emissions to near zero, which requires no less than a transformation of the global energy system from fossil fuels to clean energy. For its part, the United States has set a goal of 80 percent carbon reductions by 2050 and a midterm goal of 17 percent reductions by 2020.
  • Innovation analysts argue today’s technology isn’t enough to get us to 80 percent global (or US) carbon reductions. Cheaper and better technologies are needed to fully address climate change, which requires looking at the full innovation ecosystem and aggressively strengthening through policy. Today’s policy approach is woefully lacking because it underinvests in research, development, and demonstration, and provides limited deployment incentives that don’t drive innovation. As a result, innovation analysts (for example, myself) typically focus on boosting R&D budgets, bridging the valley of death, and reforming deployment policies to drive technological improvements as the best path to addressing climate change.
  • Deployment advocates argue today’s technologies are enough to at worse meet our midterm climate goals and at best get us much closer to our 80 percent goal than innovation analysts argue. Most commonly, this extends to deployment advocates arguing that big innovations really aren’t necessary. In other words, we need to do everything we can to push deploying today’s technologies by using policies including subsidies, carbon pricing, and mandates. By no means is funding research not important, but it’s not a high policy priority. As a result, deployment advocates (for example, Climate Progress EditorJoe Romm) champion clean energy subsidies and incentives to accelerate the deployment of existing technologies and as the best path to addressing climate change.

As Dave Roberts at Grist argues, there is in fact a lot both “camps” agree on at this level. Cheaper and better clean energy technologies will make deep carbon reductions less and less “difficult, expensive, and politically contentious” than if we relied solely on today’s technologies. The agreement only breaks on the policy implementation side. 

On one hand, innovation analysts argue that whether we like it or not, tough choices must be made as to how we appropriate public investments in clean energy. (Related: On Moving Towards Innovative Solutions to Deploying Clean Energy Technologies)

Smart policy choices must be made because of gridlocked Washington, the political contention surrounding climate policy, consumer’s unwillingness to pay higher energy bills and the need to prioritize limited public funds. It’s unrealistic to support every clean energy policy – instead we have to advocate for and implement policy strategies that offer the deepest carbon cuts and most affordable and viable option to consumers. A cohesive energy innovation strategy does just this.

On the other hand, Roberts countered:

“Now, it is true — again, axiomatically — that there is a limited pool of public funds. It’s especially true these days, given D.C.’s counterproductive mania for spending cuts. But I think it’s a misreading of the political economy to think that those cuts are being made according to any rational assessment of spending needs, or that it is savvy for recipients of that spending to angle against one another for scraps.”

In other words, the public investment debate is irrational, and fighting over the shrinking slice of the discretionary budget by emphasizing an innovation strategy over a deployment-only strategy is ultimately counterproductive. We should collectively and aggressively work for clean energy to be a national priority to “lift all boats,” – both innovation and deployment of today’s technology alike.

Making the Short-List of Policy Advocacy

With this in mind, say innovation analysts and deployment advocates agree on most policy nuances —  how would that change policy advocacy? For example, if a deployment advocate like Bill McKibben, Joe Romm, or other leading environmental organizations were at the White House or in a congressional office pitching their 2-minute policy priorities, would energy innovation make the short-list?

My feeling at this stage is probably not. To provide a few examples: Leading up to the State of the Union, the dominant message from deployment advocates was focused on either the approval or disapproval of the Keystone Pipeline or potential EPA regulations on power plants. Previous to that, vastly more time and effort was spent pursuing an extension of the Production Tax Credit for wind, rather than sustained efforts to reform it (AWEA’s last minute offer aside). More advocacy effort was spent in 2011 supporting the light bulb efficiency standard than fighting off cuts to vital energy innovation programs. And aside from ARPA-E, declining or stagnant energy innovation programs rarely receive advocacy priority when push-comes-to-shove. Deployment policies win out almost every time.

This is a problem. In many ways, framing policy recommendations around energy innovation is difficult because it’s about reform; it’s about fighting for bigger energy innovation program budgets, ensuring consistent revenue streams over time, and linking research institutions with commercialization and deployment policies. It’s complicated to approach, and it’s not as sexy as fighting the Keystone Pipeline, but it’s much more important and absolutely necessary for addressing global climate change.

It may be complex, but in the words of our favorite TV president Josiah Bartlet, “…there aren’t very many unnuanced moments in leading a country that’s way too big for ten words.” It is time for energy innovation policy to become a priority in our policy nuance and our elevator pitches, because the nation cannot face the challenges of climate change without it.

To continue the discussion, here is what my top three priorities would be as part of a 2-minute energy innovation pitch. What would be yours?

1. Triple public energy RD&D investment from current levels, including fully funding ARPA-E and creating an energy tech demonstration strategy.

2. Tax carbon tax oil and gas drilling and use funds to provide a consistent revenue stream for clean energy RD&DD.

3. Make permanent and reform clean energy deployment policies so that they provide decreasing incentives over time tied to cost reductions and performance increases.

Source: Making Energy Innovation Part of Advocates Climate Policy Elevator Pitch

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