The Obama administration has done a commendable job jumpstarting renewable energy development and is well on its way to achieving the president’s goal of providing enough renewable energy to power three million homes. Although the administration’s efforts to boost the renewable energy sector have been successful to date, there is little doubt that concern for continuing access to capital –the result of the potential loss of the production tax credit and grant programs, the impact of cheap natural gas, and the failure to agree on a national energy policy that would spur investment in clean energy development — is undercutting the administration’s successful effort to move the clean energy economy forward. This uncertainty – especially for financing and a growing market for clean energy – will continue to thwart the growth of this energy sector.
Congress could address these concerns by extending tax credits (which could be paid for by redirecting current oil and gas production subsidies) and by passing legislation to establish a national goal for renewable energy production or by finally putting a tax on carbon pollution. These solutions would help spur private-sector investment in clean energy and reduce the industry’s dependence on federal subsidies. The result would be good for economic growth, stimulate employment, and reduce the federal deficit (by reducing federal outlays and generating increased tax revenue over the long term).
Instead, Congress has chosen to do none of the above — leaving the market uncertain while complaining that the Obama administration has no energy policy. At the same time, anti-environmental members of Congress choose to argue that regulations designed to protect human health and natural resources are thwarting efforts to promote clean energy. Nothing could be further from the truth.
To the contrary, the conservation community has worked in partnership with the solar and wind energy industries to frame policies to guide solar development on public lands and promote responsibly wind energy projects. With encouragement from the industry and conservation groups, the Interior Department’s Bureau of Land Management is poised to finalize a first-of-its-kind plan for responsible solar energy development on public lands, which should help solar energy projects move forward more efficiently by reducing risk to wildlife and natural and cultural resources.
In addition, the Interior Department’s Fish and Wildlife Service recently issued guidelines for wind energy development that were based on the recommendations of a scientific panel (established, in fact, by the Bush administration) and fully-supported by the wind energy industry association and leading conservation organizations. This is ground-breaking progress for the energy sector that has never been seen before and a reflection of a common understanding of the need to develop cleaner, more environmentally-responsible and secure sources of energy.
But to keep the clean energy boom from going bust, our nation’s leaders need to act quickly to shore-up the nascent industry. Congress can start by creating demand for renewable energy, following the lead of some 33 states – most notably California, which has set the highest target aiming to generate 33 percent of its energy from renewable sources by 2020 – and setting a national renewable energy standard. Although such legislation is currently pending, its prospects for passage are not good, to no one’s surprise. Congress must also make financing for renewable energy development – solar, wind and geothermal projects – more secure as President Obama has called for time and again. The uncertainty of our nation’s commitment to clean energy discourages investment from the private sector. The oil and gas industry receives billions of dollars worth of incentives each year. For the clean energy industry to take flight, Congress must at least make a commitment to renewables on par with fossil fuels.
Last, but certainly not least, the Obama administration must put in place a national program for siting and permitting responsible clean energy projects. As mentioned earlier, the Bureau of Land Management’s proposed solar-energy program stands as an example of “smart from the start” clean energy policy. It was developed with input from conservation organizations, industry representatives, clean energy advocates, utilities, and investors. The program aims to accelerate solar energy development by guiding projects to low-conflict areas that are least likely to impact imperiled wildlife and sensitive lands. This approach reduces risk for investors and provides developers with greater certainty that their projects can move forward and conservationists with greater confidence that risk to wildlife and the environment will be minimized.
If the clean energy sector goes bust, it cannot be blamed on the Obama administration, the solar and wind energy industries, or conservation groups. The blame will fall squarely on Congress, which chooses instead to complain about the lack of a national energy policy, while blocking any effort to help advance our clean energy future and pointing a finger at others for their failure to lead.