Wonkblog Footnotes the First Presidential Debate

October 4th, 2012 at 12:00 pm

Well, that was just wonk-a-delic—much more down in the policy weeds than I expected.   And of course, when that happens in this context, there’s going to be a lot of confusion and many facts that require checking.

Thankfully, the WaPo’s Wonkblog army did an admirable and balanced job.

This one is particularly important to me, as I worked on and tracked the clean energy investments made under the Recovery Act:

Romney is right that the Obama administration has allocated about $90 billion for clean-energy programs. But he’s wrong that half of those programs have failed. Here’s the breakdown from the White House: $29 billion for energy efficiency, including home retrofits; $21 billion for renewable generation such as solar and wind; $10 billion for modernizing the electric grid; $6 billion to promote advanced vehicles and a domestic battery industry; $18 billion for high-speed rail and other trains; $3 billion for research into coal carbon sequestration; $3 billion for job training; $3 billion for clean manufacturing tax credits. (The one caveat is that not all of that money has been spent yet.) Yet while there have been a handful of notable failures, such as Solyndra, not even close to half of the clean-energy loan recipients have failed–at the end of 2011 the failure rate was just 1.4 percent.

The idea of attacking $90 billion in clean energy investment strikes me as wrong-headed on numerous levels.  First, alternative and renewable energy sources must be part of the mix if we’re going to reduce our dependence on fossil fuels and lower carbon emissions.  Second, the history of large investments in new sectors involving deep R&D, high start-up costs, and uncertain returns implies that private firms will under-invest without the federal government backstopping the loans.  Third, there are jobs to be had across the spate of sub-industries that will produce this new energy.

As Michael Grunwald has stressed, these investments have already been transformational

…the generation of renewable electricity has doubled on Obama’s watch. The stimulus has financed the world’s largest wind farm, a half-dozen of the world’s largest solar farms, the nation’s first refineries for advanced biofuels, a new battery industry for electric vehicles, unprecedented investments in cleaner coal and a smarter electric grid and over 15,000 additional clean-energy projects. The Obama Administration has also approved the first 17 utility-scale solar projects on public lands, as well as historic new fuel-efficiency and appliance-efficiency standards that will dramatically reduce our energy consumption. Last year, the U.S. was the least dependent on foreign oil it’s been since 1995, and our greenhouse-gas emissions are dropping even though the economy is growing.

But you don’t hear about that much. Even after the Massey coal-mine collapse, the BP oil spills, the Fukushima nuclear meltdown and now the Chevron refinery fire, there hasn’t been a great debate about clean energy and Obama’s green revolution. (Wind and solar spills are a problem only when you don’t have a sweater or sunscreen.) Instead, as I wrote in a magazine column this week, we’ve been mired in a fake debate over Solyndra. The tax credit for the wind industry is as good a place as any to start a real debate, not just because it creates jobs in Colorado and Iowa — industry-targeted tax credits always create jobs in the industries they target — but also because it exploits an inexhaustible domestic source of electricity that doesn’t broil the planet.

That’s a smart use of $90 billion in investment capital…the very kinds of forward-looking investments we should be making.

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3 comments in reply to "Wonkblog Footnotes the First Presidential Debate"

  1. mitakeet says:

    The main complaint I have about all this alternative investment is that it seems _specifically_ targeted at a very few well-connected individuals and is not accessible to the general public. I have had several ideas for alternative biofuel approaches that I feel have strong potential to complete _without_ subsidies (once it has been proven and reached a certain scale, of course; it is experimental at this time), but there do not appear to be any resources available for people like me. Venture capitalists, of course, are allergic to research efforts, so I know not to look for help there and angel investors are all about personal relationships, which I appear to lack, so I seem to be in the no-man’s land when it comes to getting support.

    I would be vastly more supportive of Obama’s alternatives program if there were a significant amount allocated for long shots like me, instead what I see is the typical crony capitalism.

  2. Jake says:

    Government support does improve energy supplies. Overlooking for the moment the controversy over fracking, it is a technology that developed through government research funding starting in the 80’s. Recently, Berkshire Hathaway bought two large solar farms in California, and they own wind arms in Iowa that are profitable b/c of the government subsidy. Call it “trickle down government” if you want, but it does seem to be good for our economy.

  3. Ranger Jay says:

    Just imagine if a president would declare a program for clean energy similar to JFK’s famous “man on the moon before the end of the decade” declaration. A full, no holds barred national effort to become self sufficient by the end of the decade. Zero oil imports would be an ideal goal, but if not, then set a goal that IS reachable.

    Imagine the amount of R&D that could be performed, and the benefits realized, if such an effort took place. We are STILL reaping benefits from the space program, and that was half a century ago. I mean, the iPhone success can be directly linked to R&D done to put a man on the moon.

    It’s time for long-term planning and investment. It’s just stupid to let all the “free” energy available go to waste, while throwing away vast sums of money and polluting the planet with out-of-control petroleum consumption.

    What most people in this country don’t realize is that they are driving “solar powered” vehicles. It’s just that all of the energy stored in petroleum originally began as solar energy, stored in plants and animals, that became buried and compressed over millions of years. We are using up in a couple hundred years what took millions to transform.

    There is no reason why we can’t wean ourselves off of petroleum, other than refusal to do so. There is certainly no GOOD reason not to…