THE BLOG
01/25/2011 05:32 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Speaking to Conservatives About Clean Energy

As the president prepares to deliver his State of the Union Address in a climate of growing fiscal conservatism and a Republican majority in the House of Representatives, it is imperative to forge true bipartisanship around the development of a robust and "clean" US economy. Here are some ideas the president should consider to attract conservative support.

Americans want more clean energy for three reasons: (1) energy security; (2) economic growth; and (3) environmental protection. Liberals tend to focus more on environmental protection, while conservatives tend to focus more on energy security, and everyone wants the economic benefits of energy diversity, productivity gains, job growth and technology innovation associated with clean energy.

It is easy to seek common ground by highlighting how the growth of clean energy addresses all three areas of concern. However, one should not gloss over the difference between means and ends. Both sides often agree on the ends. The polarizing debate surrounds the means. Nearly all conservatives will acknowledge that America needs more clean energy. But ask them to spend taxpayer money on it, and they will decline, particularly if the purpose is to address environmental protection, an issue that does not resonate with many conservative voters.

There is a path to forging bipartisan support for clean energy legislation in this Congress. To achieve it, the president will need to focus on the following five points:

1. Promote US competitiveness as the centerpiece of a clean economy. Our international trading partners -- led by China -- are laying plans for massive investments in the clean economy. Forecast to exceed $2 trillion per year by 2020, the vibrant markets for clean energy and energy smart technologies, such as smart grid, ultra high capacity transmission, advanced energy storage, LED lighting, and electric vehicles, will be dominated by countries encouraging investments in R&D, manufacturing and deployment. To be competitive, the US must not just maintain its edge in R&D investment, but focus even more on encouraging the growth of manufacturing and deployment, as are countries around the world. America is not predestined to remain home to the most vibrant economy in the world forever. We need to rise to the challenge.

2. Acknowledge the primary role of markets and private industry. Seek to reduce inefficiencies in how markets operate, but not by usurping the judgment of market participants. Feed-in tariffs (FiTs), tax credits and reverse auctions are three tools used in many countries to support clean energy. Tax credits are the dominant policy tool in the US, but the least efficient. FiTs are dominant in Europe, but the most intrusive in private markets since the government sets the price for clean energy. Reverse auctions, on the other hand, rely on market forces to facilitate development of the lowest cost, highest efficiency clean energy projects. One case in point: Brazil recently lowered the cost of wind energy by more than 40 percent by switching from a feed-in tariff to a reverse auction regime.

3. Promote cost competitiveness between energy sources. The solution to reducing the cost of clean energy is to build more of it. The history of the power industry reveals that all new energy sources start out expensive, and get cheaper with scale. Wind and solar are following suit today, and at a pace even more dramatic than coal, natural gas or nuclear did in their day. Whether to promote energy security or environmental protection, the move to diversify our sources of energy will reduce our cost of energy over time.

4. Take advantage of the strengths of the federal government, without usurping the role of the states. The states have played the leading role in advancing clean energy in the US for the past decade. In fact, five of the most active states in clean energy (Texas, Minnesota, South Dakota, North Dakota, and Idaho) have strong state policies in support of the industry and are politically dominated by Republicans. Conservatives are very serious about federalism, and an honest effort to protect the important role of the states, while utilizing the strengths of the federal government to promote clean energy, is bound to gain conservative support.

5. Don't focus on environmental protection. Conservatives care about the environment, and many conservatives believe that climate change is a serious concern. However, conservatives also believe that environmental red tape is strangling the clean economy. In the US, acquiring an environmental permit to build a new solar manufacturing plant or install solar panels can take years, whereas in China, the same environmental permit can be acquired in days. And whether or not conservatives believe in the science of climate change, nearly all conservatives believe that a price on carbon is a disguised tax. More conservatives will support the growth of the clean economy if economic growth is indeed the inevitable outcome.

Conservatives understand that the status quo is unacceptable. Speak to them in their language and they will listen.