A Note to Joe Romm and Tom Friedman: Sorry, we need an RD&D, RD&D, Deploy, RD&D, RD&D, Deploy Clean Energy Strategy

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We have met the enemy and the enemy is us.  At least, that’s what the climate and energy policy discussion has devolved into. If the biggest barrier to implementing high-impact policy change is those that fundamentally believe climate change is not a problem (or real) then the next biggest barrier is those that think we can simply deploy our way to deep global carbon emission cuts with existing technology. In fact the latter is potentially more harmful now to creating the kinds of policies that will allow the globe to drastically cut carbon emissions.

Joe Romm of Climate Progress, a leading deployment voice, advocates for the so-called deploy, deploy, deploy, R&D, deploy, deploy, deploy policy method.  In other words we should put nearly all of our time, effort, policy, and public dollars into rapidly deploying as much existing clean technology as possible because that’s how we’re going to cut carbon emissions. While he states we should put a few dollars into R&D, the lion’s share of his emphasis would be on deployment.

The problem with this approach is that it ignores that clean energy is not cost-competitive with fossil fuels in most circumstances without significant government support and won’t be without RD&D. Solar and wind are more expensive than building a coal or natural gas plant. Add in storage costs and they’re even more expensive.  The same cost concerns plague solar thermal technologies, which come ready with a built in storage solution. Electric vehicles are a more expensive option than the same car that uses gasoline and they travel short distances on a single charge. And today’s biofuels aren’t proven to be commercially scalable at a cheap cost. At its core, Joe’s climate policy solution is the equivalent of giving someone an Apple II computer to stream movies from Netflix. Simply put, we don’t have all the clean technologies we need to address climate change and massive deployment of the tech we have won’t change this, even if it were politically possible.

But there’s more.

Recently throwing his hat into the deployment ring is Tom Friedman of the New York Times. During an interview with Romm, Tom said:

“Addressing climate change is not about R&D. Breakthroughs come from deployment, and driving prices down come from deployment. Those two together are what give you scalable responses to our climate problem.”

This isn’t the first time Tom has been wrong, but this time it’s even more troubling. Tom inherently agrees that clean energy isn’t competitive, otherwise why would we need breakthroughs and cost reductions (Joe conveniently fails to point this out).  But to get cost-competitive clean energy Joe and Tom think we need a lot of deployment and little, if any, R&D. Their thinking – deployment will scale clean technologies down their cost curve past the cost of fossil fuels.

But here’s the problem. In most cases these cost curves don’t get below the cost of fossil fuels.  Therefore, more deployment to move technologies down these cost curves won’t result in clean energy that is cheaper than fossil fuels. This is because deployment alone doesn’t spur enough innovation.  At least not the types of innovation we need to produce cost-competitive clean technologies.  We need entirely new clean technology learning curves to make clean competitive with dirty.  New battery technologies. New solar architectures. New materials. And so on.

 

 

Joe and Tom are missing the single most important question in the climate and energy policy debate today: what clean technology cost curves are going to be lower than the cost of fossil fuel alternatives.We can produce 1 million more batteries used in the current Chevy Volt, but that’s not going to bring the cost or performance of a Chevy Volt down to its fossil-fuel-driven alternatives. On the contrary, many of the breakthrough batteries in development today like the promising new Envia electric vehicle battery holds the potential to far exceed the cost and performance of the Chevy Volt system and is doing so with targeted public support for innovation, not selling a lot of Volt’s.

No, what we need is an “RD&D, RD&D, Deploy, RD&D, RD&D, Deploy” strategy.  As ITIF has written before, deployment, while playing a role in an innovation strategy, is largely limited to driving incremental improvements.  But for technologies on the precipice of competitiveness, deployment is important to consider. Clean tech isn’t there yet.  It’s why folks like Bill Gates and Nathan Myhrvold have called for more energy innovation and more research, development, and demonstration (RD&D) investments. Our policy emphasis and our advocacy should reflect this.

But the danger here goes well beyond two widely read advocates getting it wrong on clean energy innovation.  The danger is that promoting such a policy emphasis is leading us down a path that fails to deeply cut carbon emissions as quickly as possible. Rapidly deploying existing costly technologies is limited by budget constraints and the public’s low tolerance for higher energy costs. We clearly cannot subsidize and mandate existing technologies to deep emission cuts. It’s just not a realistic solution given America’s economic and fiscal limits, setting us up for failure and a much warmer world.

Clean energy is simply, in economic terms, a “luxury good” today. As a result, the United States drastically cutting emissions means little to limiting global temperature rise as the developing world increases fossil fuel consumption. At its core, we’re talking about global warming, not American warming.And even if it were possible in the United States (and other developed countries) to massively deploy existing technologies, which it isn’t, we can’t expect the world to subsidize, mandate, standardize, and tax credit their way to clean energy given its higher costs and the fact that much of the developing world is simply trying to gain access to affordable energy (and food, housing, healthcare, etc.). Just because we may be able to subsidize an uncompetitive technology to market for a time, doesn’t mean everyone else can. Making clean tech cost competitive is the sure-fire way to bring zero-carbon energy to the entire global market.

Ultimately, the reason why Joe and Tom call for a deployment-first approach is they believe the climate crisis merits it. I absolutely agree with the need for action. Climate change is a dangerous problem that we are decades behind in addressing.  And we should pick as much “low-hanging fruit” as we can in the meantime to lower emissions and buy us some time, like building out energy-efficiency, limiting non-carbon greenhouse gases, and aggressively pursuing resiliency efforts. But we have to recognize that trying to build out uncompetitive clean technologies through just regulations and subsidies is not a solution.

At the end of the day, admitting that the emperor has no clothes – that saying most clean technologies aren’t “ready for prime-time” – is for Joe and Tom providing fodder for the climate-deniers and Solyndra-bashers. Yet to get the policies and politics right to actually reduce emissions, we have to be realistic and not base policy on exaggerations and hope, but on reality. One reason the Solyndra-bashers have ammunition is because the Joe Romm’s and Tom Friedman’s of the world overpromised what existing clean energy technologies could deliver.  The difference between Joe/Tom and me is that they don’t put innovation at the center of the climate challenge and I do.

Let me be clear, a clean energy innovation strategy isn’t a “do-nothing” approach or a mischievous way of delaying action on climate change. I’m farthest from a so-called “climate denier.” In fact, I have the same goals as Joe and Tom – to aggressively mitigate climate change. But at the end of the day, the path to doing so is simple: how do we make clean energy cheaper than fossil fuels so we can rapidly and widely deploy those technologies worldwide. RD&D, RD&D, Deploy, RD&D, RD&D, Deploy is the answer.

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About the author

Matthew Stepp is a Senior Analyst with the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation (ITIF) specializing in climate change and clean energy policy. His research interests include clean energy technology development, climate science policy development, transportation policy, and the role innovation has in economic growth.