Americans Still Want Renewable Energy — and They’re Going to Get It

American Public Support Effort to Reduce Global Warming

James Gaddy knows manure. Chicken manure, to be exact. He’s spent years working with it. That may not sound like much fun to you and me, but Gaddy is on a mission to power the earth — and, in the process, save it.

Specifically, Gaddy has figured out a way to produce ethanol from the bacteria in chicken manure. And it’s cellulosic ethanol, not the corn-based kind that siphons land in Iowa, jacks up the price of food, and results in almost as much greenhouse gas emissions as gasoline. No, this stuff is the real deal. It dramatically reduces greenhouse gases, and it comes from something we were going to throw away anyway.

I used to write about cellulosic ethanol, back when I first starting writing op-ed columns over six years ago. That was before the Great Recession — before we all became obsessed with the economy. People were more concerned about environmental issues then.

The most popular policy I proposed was a Manhattan Project for the 21st century: a national investment in a range of alternative energy technologies that would wean us off foreign oil and dramatically increase the efficiency of our energy use. It would be a public-private partnership. The free market would lead the way, creating and selling the products, but they would be supported by startup capital and loan guarantees from the federal government, the only entity big enough to absorb the upfront costs for a new national infrastructure, as it did in the days of Eisenhower and Roosevelt and even Jefferson.

People loved that idea. They saw it as this generation’s “we choose to go to the moon” moment. When the economy started to weaken in 2007, they liked the idea even more. Now, it wasn’t just investing in the future; it was creating jobs for today.

And it wasn’t just Democrats. The majority of my readers were Republicans, and they thought it was a great way to distance ourselves from Middle Eastern oil producers without a lot of government regulation.

According to a survey released earlier this week, their opinion hasn’t changed. The Center for Climate Change Communication at George Mason University polled Republicans and independents who vote Republican, and they found that 77 percent think we should use more renewable energy. A majority of them believe this so strongly that they think it’s worth the cost of any government intervention that may be necessary to achieve that goal. In fact, when they read the 2012 Republican Party platform, which doesn’t mention climate change but does celebrate coal and oil, two-thirds of them disagreed with it.

So I think it’s fair to say that Americans of both parties still want a large, Manhattan-style investment in renewable energy. Which brings me back to James Gaddy.

In Vero Beach, Florida, the Swiss company INEOS is building a biorefinery that will use Gaddy’s research to convert waste into eight million gallons of ethanol every year, all the while powering itself and creating electricity for others to use. This project would not have happened without a $50 million grant from the federal government, one of many grants included in the 2009 stimulus that has become so unpopular.

In fact, as investigative reporter Michael Grunwald documents in exhaustive detail in his book The New New Deal, the 2009 stimulus was “the biggest and most transformative energy bill in U.S. history,” funding everything from electric vehicles to high-speed rail, from biorefineries to wind farms, from solar panel manufacturing to home weatherization.

As it turned out, we got our Manhattan Project, and no one noticed. The Obama administration didn’t sell it, the media didn’t report it, and the Republicans in Congress did everything in their power to hide it and discredit it.

It wasn’t enough, but it was a start — and if the George Mason poll is any indication, it won’t be the end. The enemies of progress can stand in our way, but they can’t hold us back.

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This op-ed was published in yesterday’s South Florida Sun-Sentinel.

Romney’s Energy Plans Don’t Bode Well for the Future

Mitt Romney has officially given up on the future. At least, that’s the way it looks from the energy plan he released last month.

The future is in peril for a number of reasons. Climate change is slowly eroding the environmental stability we’ve enjoyed for centuries. The wide gap between what we import and what we export is driving manufacturing jobs overseas. And our dependence on foreign oil embroils our national security in the explosive Middle East.

With his new energy plan, Romney surrendered on all three fronts.

When Romney proposed expanding oil drilling to previously restricted areas, he was probably listening to people like Fox News commentator Peter Morici, who has said, “Oil imports could be cut by two-thirds by boosting U.S. oil production to 10 million barrels a day.”

Only one problem: It’s impossible.

According to the Energy Information Agency, even if we open all those lands to exploration, our current production of 6 million barrels per day will never grow to more than 7.5 million, let alone 10. There just isn’t enough oil under the ground — and even if there were, it wouldn’t be available for another decade.

So we will always import oil — unless we replace it with something else.

By “something else,” of course I’m referring to renewable energy. The Romney plan, however, doesn’t propose a single policy to encourage the development and export of renewable energy technologies. Instead, it advocates even less oversight of an industry that experienced the worst environmental disaster in American history only two years ago.

Romney’s preference for oil over solar and wind power is particularly striking in light of his party’s alarmism over inflation (which never seems to materialize when they say it will). After all, oil prices have been rising for three decades, while manufacturing prices have been falling.

Since the 1990s, installation costs for wind power have fallen by 90 percent. In last year alone, solar panel prices fell 50 percent. Compare that to gas prices, which…well, you know.

Someone needs to tell Mitt Romney: You can’t be an inflation hawk and an oil bull at the same time. If you commit the nation to more oil, you’re committing to rising prices.

For a candidate so enthralled with innovation and entrepreneurship, it’s especially astonishing to see Romney’s indifference to the renewable energy market. If any industry could close the trade deficit with China, it’s solar and wind power, where China has much less advantage than in other manufactured products because labor only accounts for 4 percent of the total cost. “Imported oil and subsidized imports from China account for nearly the entire trade gap,” according to Morici.

So why not kill two birds with one stone?

Once upon a time, the federal government would have supported a blossoming industry like renewable technologies. Back when it was the fastest-growing economy in the world, the United States had the world’s highest industrial tariffs, protecting its young factories until they were strong enough to compete with foreign firms.

No longer. Under the rules of the World Trade Organization, high tariffs are not allowed, except in retaliation to a foreign competitor’s protectionism. China, for example, is now paying such a price for subsidizing its solar companies, giving them an unfair advantage over American firms like SolarWorld.

But, in many ways, the damage is done. Since receiving subsidies from the Chinese government, several Chinese companies have overtaken their American competitors. If we want to fight back, we’ll have to do the same with loan guarantees, tax credits, and major government purchases (all of which are allowed by the WTO).

But the Romney plan features nothing of the sort.

Sadly, we’ve seen this indifference before. As Judith Stein documents in Pivotal Decade: How the United States Traded Factories for Finance in the Seventies, we have watched too many opportunities go by since the 1970s, allowing foreign governments to subsidize their manufacturers while ours closed factories.

This is another such opportunity. But instead of seizing it, Romney is content to allow it to fall into the hands of the Chinese, just as he is willing to let the environment fall into the hands of Big Oil. The future will just have to fend for itself.

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This op-ed was published in today’s South Florida Sun-Sentinel.

Repeat After Me: “Energy Reform”

Yesterday, we celebrated health care reform, and we talked about the bigger picture, in which I said we must take up the next challenge.

Today, you can check out my column explaining what that next challenge should be. (Yes, I’m back at the Hazleton Standard-Speaker, but only once a month.)

The challenge is energy reform. We need to be clearer about the words we use for this debate. When we talk about cap-and-trade or climate change, it tends to scare people away. It sounds big and complicated, and it gives the false impression that global warming is the only motivation for such legislation. But as my column explains, climate change is only half the problem. We also need to raise the price of carbon because of the economic and national security drawbacks of our dependence on foreign oil. And just like health care, the energy market has negative externalities that the government can reduce. Hence, energy reform.

If you follow the links in our “What to Read” series, none of the column should surprise you. If, on the other hand, you get most of your news from the mainstream media, it probably comes as a bit of cognitive dissonance. (That’s what I aim for. If I didn’t teach you something new, there wouldn’t be much point to writing my op-ed, would there?)   Continue reading “Repeat After Me: “Energy Reform””