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Refuting David Frum

David Frum, a former speechwriter for President George W. Bush and current blogger for Newsweek/The Daily Beast, is among the more thoughtful conservative commentators. (Full disclosure – I had the pleasure and privilege of writing for his now defunct blog, Nevertheless, Frum is sadly mistaken in his recent piece on President Obama’s energy plan.

“Here’s the energy truth,” Frum states. “We want energy that is cheap. We want energy that is clean. We want energy that is secure. We can have (at most) two of those three desiderata. Coal is cheap and secure, but not clean. Wind and solar are clean and secure, but not cheap. Oil from the Persian Gulf is (relatively) cheap, but neither clean nor secure.”

My question is why can’t we strive for energy that is cheap, clean, and secure? The reality is that clean energy innovation can get us all three.

Frum is generally right that coal is cheap and secure, but not clean. Oil from the Persian Gulf is indeed neither clean nor secure and only relatively cheap, emphasis on relatively. The oil market is very volatile, with prices dependent on the whims of OPEC and the stability of oil-producing countries. Furthermore, while Americans complain about prices at the pump, the “real” price of gas is substantially higher. Former GOP presidential candidate Jon Huntsman, for example, posited that, “When you factor in deployments to the Middle East. When you factor in keeping the sea lanes open for the importation of imported oil. When you look at terminaling, storage, distribution costs, etc…It is $13 a gallon.” Of course, both coal and oil have the additional, substantial drawback of being decidedly finite resources.

Clean energy technologies are clean and secure and while they may not be as “cheap” as fossil fuels today, through innovation they can and will become cost-competitive. Institutions like ARPA-EEnergy Innovation Hubs, and theNational Labs are working in tandem with the private sector to develop a host of altogether new and groundbreaking technologies. Take for example JCAP, a solar innovation hub solely dedicated to making solar power cheaper and radically more efficient. The APRA-E BEEST program, too, is doing admirable work in fostering a suite of battery ideas to make the next generation of vehicle batteries, both lithium-based and otherwise – success in that endeavor could not only be a game changer for the electric vehicles industry, but also revolutionize battery technologies in general. In fact, Envia Systems, a company which has received support from ARPA-E, has just announced a very promising battery breakthrough.

The bottom line is that all manner of potential breakthroughs in clean energy technologies could check off all three of Frum’s energy preferences. So too, frankly, could work on carbon capture and storage (CCS) for coal-fired plants. The point is we should be thinking big about energy and the possibilities of energy innovation and not assume that we are limited to the technologies of the last century. Energy that is cheap, clean, and secure is well within our reach.

Image credit: Dr. Joseph Maruszcak

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