News From the Renewable Energy Policy Forum

As I was leaving the Renewable Energy Policy Forum on Capitol Hill yesterday, ready for a brisk walk a few blocks north to Union Station, I ran into a fellow who caught my eye and said, “Not a lot of new news there, was there?” 

“Oh, I thought there were some interesting insights,” I replied. 

“Can you name one?” he insisted.

For what it may be worth, here are a few abbreviated take-aways: 

• The story of renewable energy recently is a mixture of triumph and disaster.  Renewables in the  U.S., even excluding hydroelectricity, doubled from 2008 – 2012, making good on one of Obama’s earliest campaign promises, and, some would say, established clean energy as a bone fide industry.  And that’s just the start: Prices are coming down, the subsidies for fossil fuels may be winding to an end, public acceptance of and demand for solar and wind is large and getting larger, and the laws that have hampered capital formation for clean energy projects are likely to change, creating a more level playing field. But then there’s the “disaster” side of the story: natural gas prices have made it hard for renewables to compete, and our total demand for electricity is down, due to the recession, efficiency, and the retirement of the dirtiest of the coal plants.  Many of the states’ RPSs (renewable portfolio standards) have been met, thus removing further impetus from this once-powerful driving force.  And let’s note that the oil companies still essentially own our Congress; the will of the people is continually frustrated by this form of corruption.

• A presenter from venture capital firm DBL says that her organization likes to ask, “What would Jefferson do?”  She noted that government has played a fundamental role in the development of our country, from the land grants encouraging the pioneers, to the creation of the railroads, to the formation of the oil industry, the highway system, and, more recently, nuclear power.  The concept that government should, once again, push our society in a positive direction doesn’t seem at all out of line, given this extremely consistent history.  She went into detail about the success of a great many of the cleantech companies that have been the beneficiaries of federal loan guarantees and government grants under ARPA-E.  Having said this, the portion of the federal budget that is allocated to entitlements (vs. discretionary spending) has risen from 30% in 1970 to 70% today, thus there are significant limits to what can be accomplished here and now.

• The sad fact that the U.S. has no energy policy (and thus serves up wild, unpredictable swings in critically important legislation) produces gross inefficiencies in our country’s attempts to develop renewable energy.

• Unsurprisingly, the idea of “turf” is a big deal in Washington.  Want to do something in hydrokinetics?  That means that you’ll be dealing with most or all of the 40 – 50 agencies that deal in water rights, fish and game, recreation, shipping, maritime commerce, etc.  Then, on top of the government, brace yourself to deal with the lawyers who represent private interests that may be threatened by your proposal.

• Contrast all of this with Germany and the other countries that have streamlined these processes.  Want to do a solar project in Germany?  It doesn’t take years and huge sums of speculative development capital; it takes just a matter of days.  Banks understand the subject and eagerly lend money to support it.  Perhaps more importantly, government understands the subject as well, and has made the process extremely quick, straightforward, and inexpensive.  There’s so much solar in Germany (12 times more per capita than the US) that lawyers dealing in the area are almost non-existent.  Because of all this, solar is about half the price per installed watt – not based on the cost of modules, but on the cost of project bureaucracy.

• The biofuels people were out in force at the Policy Forum; of the 20-or-so speakers, at least four or five were banging the drum for bio-ethanol / bio-diesel.  They claim, and I’m sure it’s true, that they are treated quite unfairly by the petroleum industry, who has fought the RFSs (renewable fuel standards) tooth and nail.  But I found it strange that the term “electric vehicle” was not mentioned once all day.  I left with the impression I was afraid I’d have: this is Washington.  It’s not about fairness, openness, objectivity, or serving the people; it’s about promoting the industry that represents your meal-ticket.

• Further evidence of this “ax to grind” phenomenon came when the lady from Lockheed Martin spoke.  Every word out of her mouth was about marine energy, i.e., ocean current, and what a tragedy it is that the federal government will not subsidize this hugely profitable entity (celebrating its 100th birthday) in their development of ocean current hydrokinetics.

The simple truth  is that I have unrealistic “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” expectations from our government.  I’m hoping that some person or some group will ask:

“What do the people of the United States really need?  What can Washington do to help the majority of the people lead better, healthier lives?  What can be done to restore America’s greatness?  What can our country do to lead the world in the 21st Century?”

Is there anyone in this town who thinks that way?  Sure, but they’re in the slim minority, and they’re an endangered species, since, by definition, they’re not taking much-needed campaign contributions in exchange for favors.  Let’s put it this way: for every one of them there are at least 100 people on a mission to forward a specific, money-driven agenda of some sort of special interest.

So, was there any “new news” there?  I’ll let you be the judge.

Posted in Renewables - Politics Tagged with: ,
10 comments on “News From the Renewable Energy Policy Forum
  1. Syed Azam Ali says:

    1. Renewable besides bringing with inherent advantage of saving the environment has also to be seen as a mitigation resource to reduce the overuse of mankinds capital resource – Fossil Fuel.
    The fact that Fossil Energy is ready energy available as and when required makes its position different to Renewable – PV and Wind. This specific characteristics -as and when availability / dispatch – of Fossil Energy makes it far stronger to Renewable. Hence the attitude of the people supporting it- Fossil based energy. Therefore such a statement ” it’s about promoting the industry that represents your meal-ticket”does not seem to be out of place for most of us.
    2.However, all negative approach towards Renewable would change and even end if somehow Renewable Energy mass scale Storage ability could be achieved.

    • Hank Gagnon says:

      Oil, Natural Gas and coal need to be extracted from the ground and oil needs to be refined. Gas needs to be piped all over the place. So technically fossil fuels are not ready and available without heavy investments in capital. Something the fossil fuel industry has achieved by using United States Tax payer money in subsidies and outright fraud and corruption. Cartel cry foul when one penny is spent to further renewable energy. If the oil men would get out of the way of PROGRESS this renewable energy would have already acheieved this mass storage you speak about. But they won’t they belong in jail for treason

      • Peter Chase says:

        Your comments on the “ready availability” of fossil energy are right on.

        I would also like to point out that many different end uses of energy do not have ready availability needs. Specific examples are space heating, hot water and, particularly, air conditioning, which can easily withstand short power interruptions. Longer interruptions can be addressed with thermal storage techniques and improved thermal insulation, rather than currently expensive electrical storage.

        Air conditioning, which represents about 10% of the grid load, is an obvious application for solar PV. It’s load, which peaks on sunny days during the summer, closely tracks PV output.

  2. Bravo Syed,

    “However, all negative approach towards Renewable would change and even end if somehow Renewable Energy mass scale Storage ability could be achieved.”

    It could. In fact, I am working on project, in which the ConceptTwo vehicle interacting with patent pending ARIES (Automated Recharging Instant-switching Electric Station), each withholding >20 MWh. each. As a network they could manage the oscillation of consumption tapped off the grid and leave all power plants set for an ideal output flow level 24/7. This means that it could also absorb and store all typically wasted energy including from wind solar, geothermal, etc. while providing an enormous source of profit from their EV operations.
    This would certainly avoid accidental blackouts as well as the need of building extra power plants due the mainstream proliferation of EVs. Oil companies could also profit from the project, as ARIES stations are of modular conception, would fit inside most, if not all, gas stations, where motorists could drive in and be served regardless of what kind of vehicle they are driving. The patent for the key issue (US 8256553) was issued last Sept.

  3. Jan-Gerhard Hemming says:

    I fully agree with Syed Azam Ali’s point 2. It is true that it could be done by a V2G (Vehicle to Grid) concept according to Roberto DePaschoal, but the complexity of such a solution would be repellant.

    Simplicity, simplicity! George Olah et al’s chemical proposal has potential as an ultimate solution: A hydrogen economy with methanol as hydrogen carrier, that is a Methanol Economy (1 gallon of methanol at ambient conditions contains more hydrogen than 1 gallon of liquid hydrogen at -253 *C). Cheap methanol produced from today’s abundant and cheap natural gas bridging to the future’s production of methanol from captured CO2 and hydrogen produced by whatever renewable energy splitting water.

    Nature’s photosynthesis: 6CO2+6H2O—>C6H12O6+6O2
    (carbon dioxide + water + energy —> glucose + oxygen)

    Industrial mimicry: CO2+3H2O—>CH3OH+H2O+3O
    (carbon dioxide+water+energy—>methanol+water+oxygen

    All sorts of energy can produce hydrogen by splitting water, and according to the above hydrogenate captured CO2 into methanol. Direct Methanol Fuel Cell (DMFC) is regenerative and can charge an electric vehicle battery onboard. Thus, methanol is a fuel in its own right for otto-motor, easy to chemically transform into DME for diesel-motor, an excellent range extender for battery electric vehicles and a versatile feedstock for the chemical industry to produce all the hydrocarbons we hitherto got from fossils.

  4. Barry Nicholls says:

    It seems that the biggest impedment to renewable energy is our elected officials.! Perhaps a more focused priority on campaign finance reform might be the key to stimulating the the renewable energy field that we all desire

  5. Garth says:

    Having been next to the licensing process and watched the mid-level government bureaucracy eat up time and money for no other reason then “individual agendas” it’s a wonder we get anywhere at all. For example one of the projects is a 1000Mw closed loop pumped storage, which is within a year of receiving its license, has cost nearly 4m dollars to satisfy the NEPA requests from both State and Federal governments. This project being closed loop is removed from the aquatic nexus and the recreational nexus due to its siting, yet we still have to jump thru all the hoops. The company has not sought government monies and would rather avoid that trap having learned numerous lessons during past licensing for small hydro projects. The simple fact is government kills more renewable energy projects than they help: if not by finding some environmental fatal flaw then over extending the licensing process or requesting so many expensive studies that the cost becomes too great and the payback is out of reach for investors. If government really wanted to address our energy needs they would back off and let the market dictate what should be built and where it should be located.

    • Ed Mimmo says:

      I totally agree, my green energy takes in seawater,flash cooks the brine till it’s rock salt,captures all the steam after it runs turbines.Has zero waste,no impact to environment,and it’s going nowhere. Why?

  6. Ed Mimmo says:

    Hydrogen wins in my book,how do you get Washington to wake up? I have a new green energy,and can’t get it off the ground. It’s 24/7,really,see what I mean? It’s byproduct is 3 1/2 quarts of distilled water and 1 cup of sea salt for every gallon of seawater flash cooked,using modified systems in place today.It’s unlimited green energy,with the lowest cost for maintenance. It’s real ,too good to be true!, I know! Imagine having the solution to most of our problems and hitting closed doors.I need a partner with keys,anybody want to change the world,call me 413-695-4820 I’m ready.

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