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Will Romney Kill Clean Energy?

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In the vice-presidential debate of October 11, 2012, Representative Paul Ryan (R: Wisconsin) referred to the U.S. green energy focus as "$90 billion in green pork." The energy platform promoted by Governor Mitt Romney on his website claims that "The President's 'green energy' agenda has been nothing short of a disaster." So, is clean energy at risk under a Romney administration? Will Romney follow the lead of Reagan, who actually removed solar panels from the White House when he came into office?

For answers, I turned to the world's leading expert on clean energy, Michael Liebreich, CEO, Bloomberg New Energy Finance. His insight into the future of clean energy -- even under a pro-oil, less-than-green president of the United States -- might surprise you.

This is the 2nd installment of a 2-part interview with Michael Liebreich. Click to access the first part of my interview with Liebreich.

Natalie Pace: Is the U.S. a dominant player in clean energy?

Michael Liebreich: The U.S. is a huge player. In wind, you have G.E., which is one of the world's top manufacturers, with an extraordinarily strong intellectual property portfolio. In solar, you've First Solar, the leader in thin film. You've also got the next generation, ultra-high efficiency cells [in solar]. You've got Bright Source, which is a leading solar thermal player. If you look at bio energy, absolutely the U.S. has got a large piece of the leading next generation bio fuels players. In geothermal, the U.S. has got a number of players. Smart grid, you've got many of the big ones, the G.E.s and the Johnson Controls, but also the entrepreneurial ones, funded out of California. If you look at grid scale storage, the U.S. has got a large proportion of the next generation players. And even some of the further out technologies around nuclear fusion and so on.

Is this lead directly attributable to President Obama's Green Jobs Stimulus Bill?

It is a myth that this is an agenda that has been grafted on. Even looking at fracking -- hydraulic fracturing and the shale gas boom -- those technologies were supported for a long time, for decades, by Department of Energy research grants. There is actually a long history of supporting newer, cleaner energy technologies in the U.S. very successfully, and the U.S. has a very, very strong position, as a result.

Is it possible, then, that clean energy will still be a darling of Department of Energy funding, even if President Obama is not re-elected?

The concern I'd have is not that the U.S. will lose its leadership to Germany and China and Japan, suddenly and overnight, with the wrong election outcome. That's all nonsense. What would happen is that it is very hard to maintain your leadership without strong domestic markets. If you want to be a smart grid exporter, then you have to have a smart grid somewhere at scale, deeply working through the issues and the security software. It's hard to imagine a stronger company than the U.S. software players in security. That's another growth area, but you can't do it without a domestic market. The U.S. will continue to be a leader. The question is: to what extent.

Do you believe people will be driving electric cars in the future? Or is this just a waste of taxpayer money?

I am absolutely pro-electric because I've driven them. Even if it's just the Misubishi miEV or the VW eGolf, acceleration is really, really good. There is no engine noise. You don't have to go to a gas station.

So, why aren't more people driving them? China and the U.S. were supposed to be in a race to adopt EVs, but we're not hearing much of that these days.

At the end of the day, China is a developing country and new technologies tend to take off in wealthy countries. The country with the greatest penetration of electric vehicle purchasing in the world is -- you'll never guess -- Norway. Two point six percent of new cars bought in Norway in the first few months of this year were electric. Far ahead of the U.S. or anybody. Norway is environmentally conscious, with high gasoline prices and very cheap electricity because of all of their hydro. And so, it has caught on. Two point six percent is the little curve that grows geometrically over time. That's the curve to bet on.

In our first interview, we talked about cheap solar. Commuters could be saving on their electric bill and their gas bill if they were charging up EVs with their solar panels. Why isn't the word getting out about this?

The way that the companies are marketing EVs and solar panels, I don't think is particularly smart. You've got to drive long distances for the economics to make sense because the batteries are so expensive. Because of the range, you're looking for people who are commuting. So, you're looking for long-distance, urban commuters, who don't want to go to gas stations.

So, what would your ad for EVs sound like?

I would market to women, with long commutes, who get home late at night, living in the Southwest where it's sunny, who are defense- and security-conscious. If you combine solar in the Southwest, where costs have come down to the point where it's competitive, with an electric vehicle and market it as, "Help America never be reliant on foreign oil from horrible regimes, and by the way save money, too." If someone goes out and markets it like that to the right segment, you could see a couple hundred thousands of these things selling in the next year.

Probably the biggest concern in the U.S. these days is deficit reduction and getting people back to work. How does clean energy help either of those two top agenda items?

Wealth, influence and military power are going to fall to the countries that are the most resource efficient -- in labor resources and also natural resources. That's the way to maintain America's greatness. We will live better and be more secure by being less dependent on these constrained and increasingly expensive resources, one of which is energy. If you do that, then every job is a green job. That's how to have a vibrant eco-economy with low unemployment. A vibrant green economy is when you build that resource efficiency into everything, such that you're husbanding the resources, rather than sending them over to Saudi Arabia, and investing in your schools and technology development and retooling your infrastructure. There are much better things that you can do with your money.

If we give up the lead in clean energy, due to our budget deficit or an election outcome, could we end up having to buy these products in a few years from other countries?

The U.S. could spend the next 50 years, instead of buying oil, buying solar intellectual property, not just the kit, but also the licenses in solar, and wind and smart grid and so on. That is what to play for.

With $421 billion spent annually importing oil and petroleum products into the U.S., that's a critical consideration. What's the bottom line here?

There are only so much of various different resources. The atmosphere's ability to absorb greenhouse gases is one concern, but there are many others. And we have to do this in a way that isn't geopolitically insane, in terms of the dependencies that we're building on regimes that don't necessarily have our best interests at heart. All of this can be done. I'm a technocrat. I believe we can do all of that.

About Michael Liebreich
Michael Liebreich is Chief Executive of Bloomberg New Energy Finance, the leading provider of research for decision-makers in the clean energy, water, carbon and power markets.

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