Monday, July 21, 2008

Mixing Energy and Policy

I was down in Washington for a few days this past week, and I spent a big chunk of Wednesday at a conference called The National Summit on Energy Security. The conference, organized by our friends at energy education focused nonprofit 2020 Vision, was highly policy focused, highly political, highly frustrating, and, ultimately, highly educational. It was good for me: an experience that should add some nuance to a big energy vision that remains a little more whimsically utopian than I'd like.

As I've done for conferences past, I'll throw down a list of questions and give them to the internets for safekeeping:

-Is it a good idea for the US government to go into the cleantech investment business?

Barack Obama talks about a USD 50 billion venture fund, and that kind of policy prescription makes a good first impression. The longer I think about it, however, the more skeptical I get.

Is there really a worrisome lack of early stage investment capital? Is private equity tightfistedness a barrier preventing the development of the technologies we need to supply the world with clean and abundant energy?

And, if so (if it is in fact an important barrier), then does the US government have any track record of venture investing success?

-How big a problem is the scarcity of engineering expertise?

It came up quite a few times at the conference on Wednesday, and it stuck in my mind, for I've heard our emissions scrubbing friends down in North Carolina tell us many times that they'd sleep a lot easier at night if it wasn't so difficult to find and hire high quality engineers.

Are people whining? Making excuses? Or is this a real problem? Are there simply too few people out there that are trained to step in and make a technical contribution to our energy future?

And what do we do to remedy the problem? Clone Clifford Stoll, and dispatch him to classrooms worldwide?

-When is it appropriate for people to claim that what they're presenting to you is a proven technology?

At one point during the conference, a member of the audience raised his hand as if to ask a question, and, once he had the mic, he gave a little mini-pitch on Doty Energy, a startup project involved with the production of windfuels. He emphasized that he's working with proven technologies, and I imagine he said that because he thought those words would dispel suspicions that he's just some crazy scientist looking to further fund an open ended research project.

Maybe I'm semantically ignorant, and maybe those words perk the ears of people in the know, but, given the frequency with which I've been hearing and reading them these past few months, and given my inability to identify what separates a proven technology from one that's unproven, when I hear the words, they raise more doubts than they chase away.

-I'm getting increasingly confused about caps, trades, and carbon taxes.

Part of me worries that a cap and trade system is asking for a race to the middle. Putting a price on every carbon dioxide molecule emitted makes more sense to me than putting a price only on those molecules emitted beyond a government mandated level. Just seems to be too much room in there for unspectacular compliance.

Looking at things from another angle, however, no word is more politically unappetizing than tax. From a purely pragmatic perspective, it might be foolish to label what we hope will be long term climate change mitigation legislation with a word that'll make it a constant target for politicians needing edges in upcoming elections.

Also worth noting, to me anyway, was an interrupted conversation I had at the conference with Nora Brownell, former commissioner of the Federal Energy Regularoty Commission. Nora is intensely knowledgeable, articulate, irreverent, and, from all I can tell, politically independent (despite having once been a GW Bush appointee), and she has serious reservations about both cap and trade systems and carbon taxes. As I said, we didn't finish the conversation, but my sense was that her reservations traced to a deep distrust in the US government's ability to responsibly manage the funds that either would generate.

My immediate reaction is to call for a better political process that will elect better governors rather than to throw the carbon economy baby out with the government irresponsibility bathwater, but I've put an email in to Nora asking for a continuation of the conversation, so, hopefully, I'll get her full story soon.

Note: Something uncharacteristically suspicious about this post.

When I started writing, I expected lightheartedness. I had visions of giggling at the fact that the German ambassodor to the United States gave his speech bathed in a heavy blue glow from the slideshow projector that the conference organizers inexplicably left running for the full duration of his speech, and I had visions of pointing out the fact that the US 2,000 cell phone of 1985 is now a metaphor for EVERYTHING.

Didn't happen, though. I doubted my favorite politican instead.

Maybe the proximity to Capitol Hill turned me surly. Or maybe I just simply sat on this thing too long: I didn't
release the cow until it chewed and paced itself cranky.