When I staffed a booth at a local solar energy fair earlier this month, a man approached my table, knelt close to my chair, and earnestly argued that development of energy technologies should be left entirely to the free market.
I politely said something to the effect that when a free market exists in energy, I would let him know. He didn't like my answer.
Tea Party types believe that the nation started going to hell in a handbasket around the time of the New Deal, when America walked away from the libertarian Elysian Fields of their dreams and traveled down perdition's road to bureaucracy, big gummint, and socialism.
Actually, we've been arguing about the role of government in the economy since Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson fought about establishing a national bank during the Washington Administration. Hamilton won that political battle. The scale of both government and business have vastly expanded since their day, but if Hamilton and Jefferson were brought forward to our time, they would understand today's arguments. There is nothing new under the sun.
Speaking of the sun, there is an ongoing meme among conservatives that renewable energy technologies are propped up with subsidies and special government favors. Liberals counter that fossil fuels and nuclear are propped up with subsidies and special government favors.
Every form of energy is propped up with subsidies and special government favors. Neither side likes to acknowledge that. It's more fun to have tribal arguments that my energy technology is more politically correct than yours.
To borrow the old Buffalo Springfield lyric, our energy songs "mostly say hurray for our side."
A more productive debate would focus on what we want and need from our energy resources and the proper role of government in achieving those goals.
Such as security, in its environmental, economic, and defense dimensions. An example of clear thinking that popped through the usual political dross is a report published recently by a panel of retired generals and admirals from the Center for Naval Analyses, a think tank. The foundation stones of their idea have been heard before, but bear repeating - business as usual will expose the nation to greater envirionmental, economic and geopolitical risks, and we're twiddling our thumbs while other countries are heading for new energy frontiers.
Their idea is that the Defense Department would be a great leverage point to move the U.S. towards new energy frontiers.
DOD is a big energy consumer - 300,000 barrels of oil per day, for example. The Pentagon has a strong interest in deploying energy technologies that reduce costs and meet operational needs. One is minimizing tactical dangers - think of a photovoltaic array producing the energy that today is supplied by diesel fuel convoyed along roads littered with IEDs.
A significant problem with pushing new energy technologies into the market, as energy entrepreneurs well know, is moving from the R&D stage to full deployment. They encounter the "valley of death," where investors are wary of dumping big sums of capital into bringing a promising but unproven energy technology to commercial scale. The ideas die on the vine. And we carry on with business as usual.
Why not, the retired brass argued, use the Defense Department's vast physical establishment as a proving ground for energy innovations? DOD maintains bases that are small cities. DOD has 300,000 buildings worldwide, covering four times the floor space of every Wal-Mart building everywhere. New ways to heat, cool, and illuminate buildings - which consume nearly half the energy used in America - could be demonstrated at commercial scale in defense facilities.
The panel offered other ideas, such as working with business incubators to demonstrate promising new technologies. Small start-ups can't spend time on the red tape that normally comes with government procurement, so they steer clear of doing business with the Pentagon. DOD purchasing managers can't keep track of all the entrepreneurs who might have a good product idea, so they never hear about them. Incubators would be a meeting place where DOD could find out about promising products, test them at scale and help the gems navigate the "valley of death."
Tiny-government libertarians might not like hearing this, but in many cases, critical technologies that we have grown to depend upon were spurred by defense needs and funded by big gummint. Blogs demanding shrinkage of the federal government to a size befitting an 18th century backwater republic are hosted on the Internet, which originated as a result of DOD-funded research driven by Cold War imperatives.
DOD could lend a big hand in developing the energy technologies that fit today's imperatives - meeting societal energy needs securely and without trashing the natural capital on which human society depends. Imagine the discussion that Hamilton and Jefferson would have about that.
Enter your city or zip code to get your local temperature and air quality and find local green food and recycling resources near you.