Juice: No Monoliths, Only Cracks

By Published On: August 24, 2012

California policymakers--and voters for that matter--should be skeptical about claims by those seeking tax deductible contributions that November’s election is all about green and brown. Here’s why and what it means for California. What political scientists call cross-cutting cleavages in the electorate and political parties regarding energy have become too numerous and deep for a winner-takes-all result this fall. Politically, the renewable energy and alternative fuel industries are no longer small, impotent players in Washington, D.C., or state capitols. The green energy industry includes huge global companies--General Electric, Mitsubishi, Google. They’re well-established, well-organized, and have the best lobbyists and law firms working for them on K Street. They have deep campaign contribution pockets and aren’t about to fade into the woodwork if Paul Ryan becomes vice president. All the noisy charges and counter-charges about energy policy in the headlines and TV commercials amount to little more than ripples on a river created by rhetorical wind. Underneath runs a deep current that’s bringing change no matter who sits in the White House. That change is propelled by physical reality, namely, the new relationship of energy returned on energy invested. Fossil fuel still looks plentiful in the coming decade. However, producing it requires drilling and digging deeper and deeper and building more and more facilities in inhospitable environments. That means it’s going to cost more than in the past. Meanwhile, technical advances in renewables are making solar and wind power less expensive in the long-term. Coupled with new energy efficiency and management technologies--which are available but hindered largely by regulatory policy--green energy technology is becoming a revolutionary economic force, just like semiconductors before it. In a market economy with at least a modicum of freedom, green energy technology can no longer be put back in the bottle by any political party operating in an electoral system. It would take a tin pot dictatorship to do so. Sure, government can slow its progress or speed it, but ultimately not stop it. With next week’s Republican convention, Presiden-tial politics will reach a fevered pitch, but you won’t hear much about these realities from party spinmeisters. Instead you’ll hear that green energy can’t work and shouldn’t be subsidized anymore, or that if the Republicans win the future will be sulfurous and brown. On the surface, there’s a ring of truth to that and at first blush a brown choice would seem to undercut California’s green path. But a more probing look beneath the surface reveals that both parties--like rock formations--are riddled with cross cutting cleavages, cracks along lines of competing interests, be they companies with different technologies or investment portfolios, unions working for those companies, environmental groups, and farmers, residents, and local governments with varying interests based on geography, class, and ethnicity. These cleavages make for plenty of Democrats--even in California--who want to develop domestic oil and gas and keep coal mines and petroleum refineries alive. They’re backed by unions and fossil fuel industries. Witness state Sen. Rod Wright (D-Inglewood), who just last week fretted about losing oil refineries under the state’s carbon cap-and-trade program. He added he doesn’t believe in global warming (Current, Aug. 17, 2012). Then there’s state Sen. Mike Rubio (D-Bakersfield), who appears to be supporting the Hydrogen Energy California project. That development would run on coal, with the carbon dioxide sequestered for use in pumping more oil out of the ground in Kern County. Rubio touts wind publicly, but doesn’t talk much in public about his bill to streamline permitting for the coal-powered project. Republicans are no monolith either. Many come from districts home to renewable energy projects and manufacturing operations. They willingly accept campaign cash from green energy interests. They’re just as eager as Democrats to attend ribbon cutting ceremonies for new renewable energy projects. U.S. Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-ME) is an unabashed example of a Republican who supports energy efficiency and renewable energy. Even Paul Ryan fought to get federal bailout money for Detroit to retool to produce more fuel efficient cars, though now he says he would end federal spending for further such efforts. Despite these seemingly ironic political conflicts, California has wisely decided to try to speed the advance of green energy and by all signs will continue to do so no matter who wins the White House in November. The state--populous as many nations and richer than almost all--stands to become even more important for the renewable energy industry if Romney and Ryan win the White House. Whoever wins, California and other states can continue to enhance market access for green energy technology and make headway under the radar of national battles over increasingly expensive tar sands, fracking, and deepwater drilling. As the price of fossil fuel remains sticky on the downside and eventually rises even higher, more will turn to energy efficiency and management systems that trim peak power demand on the grid and reduce the cost of backing up intermittent renewable energy. This will make renewable energy even more economically competitive and attractive to anyone looking at the bottom line, rather than party ideology. Cable news pundits and politicians in Washington can huff and puff all they want about whether global warming is real and whether Keystone pipeline should be built, but the reality is that they have little, if any, power to now stop the steady, quiet revolution that’s succeeding around them.

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