How the Transition to Renewable Energy Could Come

06/15/2015 08:49 am ET | Updated Jun 15, 2016

While I do not believe that a carbon tax is practical or feasible and do not believe it is the "solution" to the problem of global warming, I do believe the transition to renewable energy is practical, feasible and necessary. We need to address the problem of global warming and to do that we need to gradually replace fossil fuels with other forms of energy. Energy is an indispensible ingredient of modern economic life, and the long-term future for fossil fuels is greater expense and greater environmental damage. So if a true price for fossil fuels won't stimulate the transition to a fossil fuel-free economy, what will? I am counting on human ingenuity and technological innovation. But, if I am dismissing higher fossil fuel cost as a way to stimulate innovation, what will stimulate the development and implementation of new energy technology?

To address that question I look to the technological innovations I have seen in my lifetime and ask: How did they come about? I also look to the current reductions in greenhouse gas emissions that we are seeing in the United States and ask: How did they come about?

Technological Innovation

Three of the most dramatic technological changes I've seen include:

  1. Cheaper, smaller and more powerful computers;
  2. The growth of cellular and satellite communications, and;
  3. The development of the Internet.

When I was in graduate school in the late 1970s, we used punch cards to set up and analyze data on a computer that was the size of a small truck. That mainframe had less computing power than the laptop I am writing this on. The price of computing power, as explained by Mr. Moore's famous law, kept coming down and the size of computers kept shrinking. What was the spark that ignited that revolution? It was not the dream of a hand held computer; it was Cold War fear. The Cold War race to develop better and smaller missile guidance systems for the U.S. Department of Defense and lighter/smaller on-board computers for NASA's space program were the starting points for shrinking computers and enhanced communications. In a similar vein, the Internet began as a way for Defense Department computers to share data.

The basic science and technology was funded by the U.S. Government and took place in national and university laboratories. When the technologies matured, some were released for commercial use. The technology that allowed Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak to build their first personal computers had its origins in the research and development budgets of the United States government. The formula for technological innovation is straightforward:

  1. Government funding of the basic science and some of the research and development.
  2. Commercialization of these technologies by the private sector.

What worked for computing and communication should work for renewable energy. The trick is to develop renewable energy products that are as reliable, convenient and safe as the current energy system at a price that is lower or at least competitive with the current system. For over seven decades the U.S. government has funded basic science, and some of that science has been used to develop new technology and products. We know how to do this, and a great deal of our nation's wealth has been built on our ability to develop and apply new technologies. This had its roots in America's land-grant colleges and agricultural extension; America's wealth began on America's farms. Government does not invest in businesses, but in scientists and the development of new knowledge and technology. The private sector then decides which of those technologies have the commercial potential to make money in the free market. The next Steve Jobs or Bill Gates will be whoever manages to make a small and cheap solar array, some other form of renewable energy, or a small and cheap energy storage device.

State and Local Policies and Programs

One of the least expensive forms of energy consumption is to not use energy in the first place--or energy efficiency. Technological innovation has a role to play here as well, but so too does management and behavior change. In many cases, organizations and individuals could easily save energy but either they are unaware of the facts, can't be bothered, or do not have the time or capital needed to invest in making their operations more energy efficient. While large-scale, major, new taxes are impossible at the federal level, some states have been able to levy taxes on electricity to provide funds for energy efficiency programs. California and New York are two of these states and they are both national leaders in energy efficiency. In New York, the utility rate structure rewards electric utilities for selling less energy and for promoting energy efficiency. New York City's energy efficiency is growing along with its population.

A number of state and local initiatives to save energy and promote renewable energy are here right now. While not all have succeeded, many have proven track records and state and local governments are learning a great deal about what works and what doesn't work. These on-the-ground solutions are demonstrated success stories. New York State's Energy Research and Development Authority is a pioneer in a wide variety of energy efficiency and renewable energy initiatives. They are partnering with local communities and private firms on microgrids and making long-term commitments to encourage the development of renewable energy. California's Energy Commission has a forty-year history of advancing energy efficiency and renewable energy throughout America's largest state. It has helped make California the most energy efficient state in the country.

The politics of energy efficiency and renewable energy at the state and local level focuses more on day-to-day practical measures and less on grand, macro-policy statements. In New York, Con Ed sends contractors to small businesses to conduct energy audits and suggest steps that they can take--with and without government's help--to save money on their energy bill. While there is always controversy in any action taken by government at any level, these programs have gained traction and appear well on their way to being seen as part of the normal landscape of state and local programs.

A National Climate Policy Agenda

At the national level, the effort by the extreme right to politicize science funding is a deep threat to progress in developing renewable energy technology. I think de-politicizing and increasing basic science funding and funding renewable energy research and development are winnable battles at the federal level. The goal of a clean, high-tech future is easier promote than the goal of reduced consumption of energy due to higher taxes. A positive vision of an optimistic future is an easier sell than predictions of flooding, famine and doom. There may well be a moral imperative to ensure that human production and consumption does not destroy the planet. There is certainly a practical argument against fouling our own nest. But in my view, on a planet of seven billion people, we must be far more careful when we produce and consume goods and services. We should not reduce consumption of the goods and services we believe to be central to our quality of life, but need to develop different types of low-eco-impact economic consumption. The science of earth observation can help us understand the impacts of humans on the planet. More advanced technologies, such as closed-system engineering, can help us increase production while reducing environmental impacts.

In the United States, our political process sends us strong signals about what problems and proposals can achieve agenda status. Increased federal support for science and technology will not be easy, but unlike a carbon tax, it is capable of drawing bipartisan support. States and localities that see the benefits of a modernized energy system have begun to take steps to update their energy systems. The market for distributed or decentralized energy is growing fast enough to cause concern among electric utilities. Americans know that they need to develop alternatives to fossil fuels and are open to new products and programs that will enable them to make greater use of renewable energy. Our climate policies should build on these promising and positive possibilities.