Energy and Cleantech – It’s not a Zero Sum Game Guys

By Neal Dikeman

A quote in a recent Wired article claiming cleantech is getting pounded epitomizes the zero sum mentality prevalent in the renewable energy and cleantech discussion.

‘Even solar’s biggest allies on Capitol Hill — people such as Edward J Markey, a top Democrat on the House Energy and Commerce Committee — fear the industry’s oil and gas foes may have gotten the upper hand. “The fossil-fuel industry and its allies in Congress see the solar and wind industries as a threat and will try to kill these industries as they have for the preceding two generations,” Markey says. “They want this to be a five-year aberrational period.”‘

It disgusts me. Nobody’s out get us. They never have been. I’ve worked for years in both the energy industry and cleantech. My grandfather, uncle, and father-in-law worked in refining. I sit on the board of a company making equipment that goes into offshore drilling and the shale gas fracking markets. I’ve also founded 6 cleantech startups myself, from smart grid, to superconductors, to fuel cells, to climate change, to solar. I’ve worked for multiple oil companies on technology. I’ve lived in Houston and Silicon Valley.

Let me repeat – NOBODY is out to get us. Especially since the oil companies FUNDED a lot of the original work in these sectors for most of the history of renewables. They carried the ball in solar and wind for us when you were still screwing with dotcoms, and early PCs. We are johnny come latelies, badmouthing our predecessors because we don’t understand them.

What “THEY” object to is two things:

The costs per unit on renewables and alternatives have always been miserably high and hard for them or anyone to make strong margins.

The reaction in the press and to policymakers of the typical renewables and cleantech afficianado to this problem has historically been to overpromise, underdeliver, and at all turns beat up on oil companies, car companies, coal companies etc, and try and take away their money and add to their costs in the policy arena, to benefit themselves. Think about it, if you shoot me with a rubber band, I ignore you. If you do it over and over again for years – especially while I help fund the rubber band plant – eventually I take my two by four and whack you on the head. And since you’re little, you crumple. It’s not a conspiracy. Stop kicking the elephant in the room and start riding the coattails.

The current smashdown in solar for example is GOOD. When are we going to wake up and figure out – success means orders of magnitude cost down, so keep up or die. Frankly, if you can’t cost down like a bandit, the energy companies are right, you are still irrelevant. If you can, they’ll pay attention.

It’s time cleantech stopped equating policies to drive higher energy prices (which screw the consumer and our GDP to only the self serving benefit of us) with good ideas.

This is not a zero sum game. It WILL take a village.

Now here’s the good news – not only are they not out to get us, they are in many cases barely aware of our existence. This is VERY good, because despite the huge successes in solar, wind, etc., it’s going to take all we’ve got just to survive vis a vis the other main technology driven innovation in energy – shale gas, light tight oil, and the twin technology towers of horizontal drilling and fracking. Whose technology cost fall rivals our own.

Or I guess we could just go back to saying cheap fracking bad, cheap Chinese solar bad, expensive US solar good. Oh wait, we tried that. Anyone remember Solyndra? Then again, go ask SunPower about Total, the energy sector is STILL bailing us out.

1 reply
  1. Matthew Stepp
    Matthew Stepp says:

    I think this correctly gets at the heart of the issue for clean energy advocates – cost decline (and I would add performance improvements) must be at the heart of clean energy policy. Traditional clean energy advocates focus almost solely on driving greater clean tech adoption that they lose sight of driving down the unsubsidized cost of these technologies (and support mandates) or wrongly assume how to drive real, drastic cost declines.

    In doing so, folks view clean energy policy – and by extension climate policy – as simply there to raise energy costs (which they will). Instead, we should be focusing on driving innovation in the nascent clean economy to drive these technologies (or develop new technologies) to cost competitiveness with fossil fuels. But that takes a different framing not really seen in the current debate.

    Matthew Stepp
    Senior Policy Analyst
    Information Technology and Innovation Foundation

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