Three Clean Energy Innovation Policy Debate Questions for the Presidential Debates

Vice-presidential debate-watching party

Climate change has been M.I.A. in the presidential campaign.  So in an effort to advance climate policy as a campaign priority, Daniel Weiss at the Center for American Progress Action Fund offers three potential climate policy questions for this Wednesday’s presidential debate on the economy.  But we don’t think the questions move the overall climate policy debate much at all. For instance, haggling over which candidate believes in climate change more isn’t going to accomplish much (the ultimate result of Weiss’s question #1). Further, Weiss’s questions don’t push the candidates hard enough on how we’re going to innovate viable low-carbon energy options for consumers and businesses, something a large majority of the public supports and is the fundamental way to address climate change. Instead, ITIF has three debate questions of its own:

1. President Obama, your Administration invested more public dollars – $150 billion over 6 years – in clean energy than at any other time in U.S. history, two-thirds of which went towards buying down the cost of wind turbines, solar panels, and electric vehicles. But even with subsidies, today’s clean energy offers less performance and higher costs compared to fossil fuels, thus greatly limiting its adoption. Additionally, programs and projects aimed at developing, piloting, and demonstrating cheaper and better technologies remain underfunded, even with the significant boost provided by the Stimulus Act early in your term.

How do you plan to foster the development of lower-cost and higher-performing clean energy technology options for consumers and businesses – and thus accelerate their adoption – without drawing out reliance on government subsidies?

2. Governor Romney, you have argued that you would refocus U.S. clean energy policies on basic research. On the one hand, you contend that the government has a role to play investing in high-risk new clean energy ideas that the private sector won’t invest in themselves. For instance, you have also stated that you support funding for ARPA-E.  Both you and President Obama agree on this in principle.  But on the other hand, you have also rejected the idea that the government has a role investing in energy technology development outside of the most “basic” projects, even though the last 100 years of technology development of everything from shale natural gas to carbon fiber to electric vehicle batteries prove otherwise.

How do you define basic energy research and what would you define as the necessary role of government in developing next-generation energy technologies? Under this definition, what type of programs and projects would you invest public dollars in to spur energy innovation and what programs would you deem unworthy of public investment?

3. This question is for both President Obama and Governor Romney. A contentious issue in the campaign has been on how the U.S. should counter China’s rising economic dominance and the mercantilist policies it has used to gain an unfair advantage.  Chinese mercantilism is quickly becoming an important threat to the development of clean energy, as the country’s subsidy and currency manipulation policies have directly led to bankruptcies of U.S. clean energy firms that can’t compete with Chinese subsidized, state-owned enterprises. Chinese clean energy policies are stifling the ability of next-generation clean energy technologies to emerge in the market.

How do you plan on combating Chinese mercantilism, if at all? What specific steps would your respective Administrations take against unfair Chinese practices to level the playing field for U.S. businesses, including those in clean energy, and discourage the Chinese government from employing such practices in the future?

Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons.

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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.