The private sector is starting to gear up.
Former oil tycoon T. Boone Pickens is building the world’s largest wind farm. General
Electric, having built one of the world’s largest
wind turbine businesses, is jumping into solar
energy. Applied Materials is taking orders for
gigawatt-scale photovoltaic fabs. The Solar
Power International conference in October
had 500 industrial exhibitors.
Thousands of startups aim to become
the Google of renewable energy. So does
In fact, one of the most hopeful portents
is that the entrepreneurs and venture funds
that defeated the monopolies at Ma Bell and
IBM are turning their sights on Exxon and
Peabody. We’ve come a long way since 1980,
when über-conflicted oil companies dominated big solar and brilliant scientists with
limited business skills dominated small solar.
This time the solar industry is populated by
seasoned entrepreneurs who seek to take over
the energy business. With more than 150 solar
manufacturing companies around the world
— many of them backed by high-tech titans
— the oil industry will not be able to buy them
all and shut them down as it did in the 1980s.
Target Federal Procurement. The federal government should buy photovoltaic
devices in bulk and install them on all federal
buildings, military bases and the backs of billboards — pouring the power into the grid.
The goal should be to grow the market in a
rapid yet predictable way linked to constantly
Large federal purchases of computer chips
for the military and NASA drove up the volume
and drove down the prices of these semiconductor devices until they were cheap enough
that the private sector saw an explosion of
demand. Now we have semiconductor intelligence integrated throughout our lives. Serious
federal purchases of solar photovoltaics could
lead these devices to become ubiquitous.
Construct a Nationwide Smart Grid.
Many carbon-neutral renewable energy sources are intermittent or diurnal. A resilient smart
grid will make real-time data available to the
grid-operator 24/7 and will embed intelligence on both sides of the meter. The best locations for sources and storage alike are widely
dispersed. We need to be able to knit the nation together with a national smart grid. Only
the government can assemble the multistate
corridor rights and transmission capacity to
make such a grid possible. The cost is generally
estimated at about $400 billion spread over 10
The most effective way to avoid a long, worldwide recession is huge expenditures on green
investments, putting millions of unemployed
people back to work.
Make It a Federal Priority
Government has a tradition of helping sunrise industries supplant their well-entrenched
predecessors. Canals were encouraged as
more efficient than horses. Railroads were
viewed as a way to open the West. The interstate highway system replaced many of the
functions performed by railroads.
Some renewable energy sources (e.g., pho-toelectrochemistry) and storage devices (e.g.,
nano-enabled ultracapacitors) would benefit
greatly from mini-Manhattan Project commitments to R&D. Others are poised to ride
learning curves to lower prices through mass
production — but they require guaranteed
markets to elicit the necessary investment.
(Computer chips went from being high-priced luxuries to cheap commodities only because the Air Force and NASA bought them
in bulk until their prices fell to a level where
the private market took over.) Here are a series of federal policies that, combined with a
carbon fuel cap-and-auction, would usher in a
Resources for Tackling
To download these free reports,
Tackling Climate Change in the U.S.: Potential
Carbon Emissions Reductions from Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy by 2030
The ASES Green-Collar Jobs Report, Renewable Energy and Energy Efficiency: Economic
Drivers for the 21st Century