Why the U.S. Needs a Renewable Energy Policy

In his 2011 State of the Union speech and in dozens of recent public appearances, President Obama has talked up clean energy setting a goal for the United States to produce a whopping 80 percentof its electricity from “clean energy sources” (including nuclear,natural gas, and “clean(er) coal”) by 2035. It’s an ambitious, welcomegoal. But how realistic is it without a comprehensive energy policypushing wind, solar, biofuels, and other renewables? I spoke with BruceBailey, CEO of the renewable energy consultancy firm AWS Truepower about the importance of a national energy policy

Why does the United States need a national energy policy favorable to renewables like wind and solar?

Because without one, it’s nearly impossible to establish a long-termmarket for wind farms and solar farms and other renewable energytechnologies. We’ve had short-term production tax credits, but they come and go. When a credit for wind energy is on the verge of expiring, forexample, development in that sector stops until there’s confidence thatthe tax credits will be extended. The uncertainty discouragesinvestment. Some states, like California early on and more recentlyColorado and many others, have taken the lead by adopting far-reachingrenewable energy mandates and tax incentives to encourage economicgrowth. But we still need a comprehensive federal policy to send thestrongest possible signal that the United States is behind renewableenergy and willing to push it.

Given the lack of a federal policy, how realistic isPresident Obama’s goal of producing 80 percent of electricity in theU.S. by 2035?

It’s hard to say, but a federal program would certainly help.Countries that do have a federal energy plan supporting renewables haveseen double digit penetrations of wind, for example. Denmark generatesaround 20 percent of its electricity from wind. Germany is in doubledigits with wind and solar. And China is forging ahead with large scalewind and solar plants. Germany and Denmark are much smaller than theUnited States, of course, and there are other important differences inour political structure and culture. But there are examples out there of countries that have used a strong national policy to take the lead inrenewable energy.

So why doesn’t the U.S. have a national energy policy that supports renewables?

Both parties support renewables, so there’s lots of common ground.But most of the legislation concerning renewable energy that’s beenproposed has been attached to bigger picture issues like cap and trade,oil exploration in Alaska, and other controversial issues that tend tobe show stoppers. Renewable energy is attached to those bills to makethem seem more attractive and to get them passed, but the controversialstuff ends up derailing the attractive renewable energy proposals. And,of course, other issues like the economic crisis, health care, andimmigration reform have gotten in the way. People want renewable energy, but they’re often confused by its upfront costs and uncertain about its true benefits.

What sort of renewable federal renewable energy policy would you like to see?

I’d like to see a policy that recognizes that renewable energytechnologies need the same type of government support that our currentpower generating sources received during their early years. Many peopledon’t understand or have forgotten that, for the most part, our energyinfrastructure was driven by federal mandates to build power plants andtransmission lines. And oil companies have enjoyed generous governmentsupport for many decades. Now wind and solar come along needing the same government boost, but the game has changed. Today, the private sectorbuilds and controls power generation. The trajectory has gone from thegovernment investing in energy for the public good to agreeing that weneed renewables but allowing the market to dictate how, if at all,they’re going to happen. So renewables are expected to struggle to gain a foothold without federal support by competing with coal, oil, andnatural gas–industries that have received and continue to enjoysubstantial federal incentives. It’s a very uneven playing field, andfederal policy supporting renewable energy could do a lot to level it.

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