A Little “TLC” for Clean Energy
This week on Capitol Hill, it appeared as though the House and Senate were finally seeing eye-to-eye on the issue of clean energy. In two separate hearings—one on the Global Clean Energy Race held by the House Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming and one on the U.S. Department of Energy’s Loan Guarantee Program (LGP) held by the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee—the case for re-establishing the U.S. as the leader in clean energy manufacturing and deployment was well argued. During the House hearing, witnesses from venture capital firms, investment banks, renewable technology developers and financial analysis providers all came close to consensus on identifying the reason for why America continues to fall further behind in the clean energy race: the lack of a consistent policy framework.
Mark Fulton, the Managing Director and Global Head of Climate Change Investment Research at Deutsche Asset Management, gave the audience a memorable policy prescription for how to fix the current impasse in Congress: Transparency, Longevity and Certainty (TLC). In other words, for investors to feel comfortable assuming the risk to financially support clean energy projects, they will need to be assured of the transparency in a country’s clean energy policies, the longevity of those policies, and the certainty that the recommended incentives will be trustworthy and financeable. While Mr. Fulton did highlight existing U.S. policies that partially fulfilled the TLC criteria, such as state-level renewable portfolio standards, without a complementary Renewable Electricity Standard at the federal level, he doubts whether investors would feel confident enough to pony up the necessary funds on a large scale basis. Ravi Viswanathan, General Partner at the VC firm New Enterprise Associates, also called for an “effective” RES in his testimony, in addition to other policies that Applied Materials has been advocating for, notably a Green Energy Bank and the permanent extension of the Advanced Manufacturer’s Tax Credit (Section 48c). The Chairman of the Committee, Rep. Edward Markey (D-MA), described our country’s current state in pretty stark terms. Referring to China’s meteoric rise in the clean energy domain, Markey remarked: “China is no longer coming. They are here. They ate our lunch, and they are moving on to our dinner.”
The Senate hearing, while more narrow in scope, had the same overarching message as the House hearing: without the right incentives in place, our country’s global competitiveness in the clean tech arena will only continue to diminish. One of the witnesses, Jonathan Silver, the Executive Director of the Loan Programs Office at DOE, succinctly explained how loan guarantees enable promising technologies to get off the ground and to market: “Loan guarantees lower the cost of capital for projects utilizing innovative technologies, making them more competitive with conventional technologies, and thus more attractive to lenders and equity investors.” To date, they have been used effectively in 14 projects, which will ultimately create 17,000 jobs and produce nearly 4 GW of clean energy capacity. However, since its launch in 2009, LGP funding has been cut almost 60 percent, with $3.5 billion of its appropriation rescinded and diverted to other programs. Moreover, it is expected to expire in the relatively near future, which will only add to investor uncertainty, especially if this move is coupled with the expected sunset of the Treasury Grant Program (Sec. 1603) by the end of this year. A failure to extend Sec. 1603 alone would put more than 100,000 jobs across the U.S. at risk, according to a recent study by the American Council On Renewable Energy (ACORE).
What both hearings boiled down to is this: the U.S. is at a critical juncture. We can either choose to wait “to do the right thing once [we] have exhausted all the alternatives,” as Winston Churchill once described the way America responds to challenges, a quote that was reiterated during the House hearing. Or we can remember the America of the past, the America that launched the Manhattan Project and the Apollo Program, as Rep. Markey mentioned, and act boldly and decisively to ensure that the next great industry happens on our soil, not China’s or Europe’s. In the absence of swift action, we run the risk of not only continuing our addiction to fossil fuels, but perhaps, one day, clean technologies as well.