The Sputnik moment in US Cleantech? Long term legislation.

Posted by proadmin on Jan 25, 2011 6:27:35 PM

Today I attended the Clean Economy Network‘s first conference in Washington, DC, fittingly on the eve of President Obama’s State of the Union address.

The conference covered the latest cleantech policy and legislative debates, as presented by and to venture investors, entrepreneurs, policy makers, NGO and utility executives.  The topics were broad ranging, from the EPA’s role in defining GHG rules, to the challenges with upgrading our electrical grid, to alternative fuel sources for the next generation of power plants and transportation systems.  The speakers were candid about their views.

My favorite nuggets:

From panel speculating on the EPA:

  • Don’t expect an attempt at carbon tax/cap-n-trade legislation from the EPA anytime soon.  Even if the EPA thinks they have the authority, the fastest it has ever implemented anything is 18 months – and it is always followed by years of litigation.
  • However, the EPA is getting dangerously close on attacking carbon, and if it comes to litigation, history tells us Congress will back off immediately as there is no win for politicians once this happens.  The better hope is that the EPA’s direction catalyzes the House and Senate to finally pass climate legislation, BEFORE the EPA reaches this point of no return.
  • The US’s current implied price of carbon (based on government and utility incentives) is $90/ton for wind, $400/ton for solar PV, $200/ton for ethanol fuel and $4,000 per ton for “cash for clunkers.”
  • Consider history lesson where deregulation in railroads, wireline, wireless and cable TV all led to more competitive markets, where innovation ultimately drove greater efficiency.  Energy markets are ready to have the same opportunity.

From Ray Mabus, the US Secretary of the Navy’s presentation:

  • Secretary Mabus reminded the audience how controversial each fuel source change to the Navy’s fleet has been – going from wind to coal to oil to nuclear.  In each shift there was significant tension about whether the new fuel source was reliable enough.  Now as the Navy plans to introduce a clean fuel fleet with demonstrations next year he confirms that skepticism is increasing….

From John Woolard, CEO, BrightSource Energy’s presentation:

  • John described the how the renewable energy legislation vacuum beyond 2016 is already impacting any new utility scale solar thermal power plant projects.  Without long term legislation investors can’t make their decisions.   While we’ve commented before on the need for predictable utility incentives for energy efficiency year to year, John’s observation really puts the long term need in perspective.  The cleantech market requires long term visibility and predictability.

On this last nugget, and as I sit here listening to the State of the Union address, I’m left crossing my fingers that President Obama’s outward determination to address our “Sputnik moment” will lead him to drive US cleantech legislation which outlives his presidency and has a lifetime impact on the industry.

Topics: Energy Efficiency, State of the Union, Federal Grants, Clean Economy Summit, Clean Energy grants, Sputnik moment