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UPDATE: Reuters and Greenbiz.com attack all federal clean energy technology development

By Joe Romm on June 10, 2009 at 4:32 pm

"UPDATE: Reuters and Greenbiz.com attack all federal clean energy technology development"

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UPDATE:  Gunther thinks my critique of his piece goes too far.  But then, he also thinks my critique of George Will goes too far.  Anyway, read the piece, his comment, and my response.  I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Apparently all federal efforts to develop clean technology should be banned — at least that’s what Reuters and the oddly named website “Greenbiz.com” seem to believe.

If they gave out awards to columnists for advice that would cause the most harm to the nation if anybody actually followed it, then Greenbiz.com, Reuters, and Fortune contributer Marc Gunther would be a serious contender with his astonishingly uninformed pieceBeware of Obama’s ‘Battery Gold Rush’.“  Let’s call this award the “Willie” named after George Will.

You might think it would be hard for anyone to seriously oppose a competitive federal technology grant-making program run by Nobelist Steven Chu aimed at restoring US leadership in battery technology — since “Plug-in hybrids and electric cars are a core climate solution” and “electricity is the only alternative fuel that can lead to energy independence.”

And that’s especially true since major trading competitors are aggressively pursuing dominance in advanced batteries and electric vehicles, including Japan, South Korea, and especially China (see “World’s first mass-market plug-in hybrid is from “¦ China, for $22,000?” and “China begins transition to a clean-energy economy“).

But Marc Gunther, a “longtime writer on business and the environment” manages to “cringe” at the notion, inspired by those (politically) right-thinking folks at the WSJ:

Obama Administration Sparks Battery Gold Rush

Companies, States Vie for $2.4 Billion in Funding Aimed at Turning U.S. Into Top Maker of Fuel Cells for Electric Cars

The story went on to say that the Department of Energy has received 165 applications from companies seeking some of that $2.4 billion. which is “aimed at turning the U.S. into a battery-manufacturing powerhouse.” The Journal‘s William M. Bulkeley reports:

“Companies vying for the federal money include General Motors Corp., Dow Chemical Co., Johnson Controls Inc. and A123 Systems, a closely held battery maker backed by General Electric Co. and others. States including Michigan, Kentucky and Massachusetts are also weighing in with applications, usually in alliance with their favored battery makers.

“When the winners are decided, as soon as the end of July, the Energy Department may anoint Livonia, Mich., or Indianapolis or Glendale, Ky., as the future U.S. hub of car batteries.”

Reading carefully, it’s clear that The Journal (“free people, free markets”) is not happy about this news. Note the use of the word “anoint,” hinting that the government is assuming divine powers. The article characterizes the DOE grants as “one of the government’s biggest efforts at shaping industrial policy” — fighting words in Journal-speak.

Who ever would have guessed that the Wall Street Journal doesn’t like a government program — especially one launched by a Democrat?  But this apparently is a big shock to Gunther, who manages to repeat pretty much every conservative talking point on technology policy:

And if electric cars are going to be as big a business as a lot of people think, then why should government investment be needed at all?

Uhh, because the issue isn’t whether electric cars are going to be a very big business — they are the issue is whether the US is going to be exporting them or importing them.

Conservatives — and business reporters — simply don’t seem to care if the United States keeps inventing stuff that other countries commercialize, generating GDP growth and jobs (see “Solar PV market doubled to 6 Gigawatts in 2008 “” U.S. left in dust, having invented the technology“)

I thought the whole idea behind cap-and-trade (which I strongly favor) is to capture the externalized cost of global warming pollutants, and then let the market figure out how best to reduce greenhouse gas emissions: regulation that would have a light touch but a profound impact.

Setting a price for carbon is a key strategy for dealing with global warming, but, again, if that’s all you do — while all of your trading competitors aggressively fund technology commercialization and deployment efforts — then the net result once again is you import the low-carbon technologies (see “Why other countries kick our butt on clean energy: A primer“).

Just to be clear here, according to The International Energy Agency, which has one of the best global economic/energy models in the world, avoiding catastrophic global warming requires spending some $2 trillion a year on low carbon technologies over the next few decades (see “Must read IEA report, Part 1: Act now with clean energy or face 6°C warming. Cost is NOT high “” media blows the story“).  About half that money is new investment and half that money is planned investment shifted from inefficient polluting technologies toward clean efficient technologies.

So averting catastrophic global warming is going to be the single biggest source of new industries and job-creation this century.  Obama gets this, repeatedly stating, “Now, the nation that leads the world in 21st century clean energy will be the nation that leads in the 21st century global economy” (see Obama: “Our future on this planet depends on our willingness to address the challenge posed by carbon pollution,” vows “we will exceed [R&D] level achieved at the height of the space race.”)

But not Gunther:

Much as I admire Steven Chu, the energy secretary, do we really want to entrust him and his staff to decide which battery technologies are likely to succeed and which companies can most wisely spend that $2.4 billion?

If we’re talking basic research, that’s fine, I suppose — the private sector can’t be asked to underwrite that, because the potential payoffs are so uncertain and long term. But this battery program is explicitly about picking winners and losers in one industry sector, which may or may not turn out to be a real business.

“I suppose”???  Even hard-core conservatives support basic research.  It’s Gunther’s attack on applied research that conservatives have been advancing for decades in order to gut all of the applied clean energy development and demonstration programs in the federal government whenever they were in charge.

Indeed, it’s why Anti-wind McCain had to deliver his climate remarks at a foreign wind company.  Reagan and than the Gingrich Congress destroyed US leadership in many technologies that we either invented or had world dominance in by 1980, such as wind.

wind-2007-small.jpg

For more, see Who got us in this energy mess? Start with Ronald Reagan and “Why is our energy policy so lame? Ask the three GOP stooges.”

Worse, Gunther seems unaware of the fact that the U.S. Department of Energy has been running competitive technology grant-making programs for decades — although with far less money than is needed to address our major energy and climate problems, thanks to conservatives.  Picking the best technology proposals using an independent panel of experts is hardly controversial.  And the DOE does it quite well, at least in the area of clean energy (see “Energy efficiency, Part 5: The highest documented rate of return of any federal program“).

Thankfully, team Obama and a progressive Congress understand the crucial importance of investment in clean energy research, development, demonstration, and deployment.  And they may well be able to make us the leader in clean energy that we once were.

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14 Responses to UPDATE: Reuters and Greenbiz.com attack all federal clean energy technology development

  1. caerbannog says:

    A bit off-topic, but this may be of interest to folks here.

    Regarding the sustainability (or lack thereof) of far-flung suburbs, take a look at what has happened to housing prices in the desert exurbs in Southern California: http://www.latimes.com/business/la-fi-cheaphomes10-2009jun10,0,4802553.story

    Excerpts:

    Properties in several areas are selling for less than they did 20 years ago, and that’s not including inflation. Some first-time buyers are nabbing houses for less than what their parents paid.
    By Peter Y. Hong
    June 10, 2009
    In parts of Southern California, the housing crash has upended a basic tenet of the American dream: that home values always increase over the long term.

    Properties in several areas are selling for less than they did 20 years ago, and that’s not even counting the effects of inflation.

    The April median price in Beatrice’s Lancaster ZIP Code of 93535, for example, was $87,000. That’s down 74% from a $334,500 peak price in 2007. Even worse was the 92410 ZIP Code in the city of San Bernardino, which covers several older neighborhoods. Its $61,000 April median represents an 84% drop from the peak of $370,000 in 2007.

    Prices also tumbled below 1989 levels in neighborhoods in Palmdale, Hemet, Barstow, Desert Hot Springs, Victorville, Highland, Santa Ana and Oxnard, according to DataQuick. Several other inland communities, including parts of Moreno Valley, Banning and Rialto, had median prices that were only slightly above 1989 levels and below the April 1990 median.

  2. Brewster says:

    While people on this forum are understandably focused on GW issues, I am coming to realize the US right is opposed to progress (seemingly defined as “anything that happened since 1958″) in any form.

    Reminds me of the 100 year old Texas farmer being interviewed by a TV Reporter:

    “You must’ve seen a lot of changes in your time!”

    “Yup, and I’ve bin agin’ every one of ‘em.”

  3. Matt says:

    Joe,

    Maybe you and Monbiot could come together for a joint award- he’s already preparing one for the worst climate writing!

  4. Leland Palmer says:

    Great idea, the Chu program, I mean.

    Another thing that we ought to look into are ultra high energy density capacitors, IMO, for quick surges of power during acceleration.

    These were looked at by the Reagan era Star Wars program, and declassification of all of this technology should of course be done.

    Oh, and we shouldn’t neglect flywheel energy storage, either. A small flywheel energy storage system could also provide snappy acceleration in an electric vehicle.

  5. john says:

    What the uber free-marketeers don’t get, is that in virtually every economic sector that the US has (or had) leadership in, the government played an instrumental role.

    Aero-space? Check — defense spending seeded the entire industry;

    Computers and software? check — AARPA and miniaturization of compenents by NASA, together with Semitech made it all happen;

    Agriculture? USDA R&D and extension service edcuation was a massive “market intervention” that virutally created US agriculture industry;

    Highways and transprotation? NHTF;

    Rialroads? Guaranteed loans, tax policies etc.

    Oil and gas? Depletion allowances; directional drilling etc

    Nukes? The conservatives new favorite technology — entirely gub’mint;

    Medicaid/medicare — 4% overhead with better health outcomes than private inusrance, which has a 25% overhaed.

    The Defense infrastructure — the single most advanced technological endeavor in the history of mankind? Yup, big gubmint.

    In fact, the biggest act of hypocrisy in the US is having the conservatives who tell us big gubmint caint do nothin right vote a half a trillion to the defense dept each and every year.

    But facts don’t seem relevant where these yahoos are concerned.

  6. Marc Gunther says:

    Mr. Romm, I am a regular reader of your blog. Your knowledge of climate and energy is impressive, your work ethic even more so. I’m also strongly in favor of federal action, either in the form of a cap-and-trade scheme or a carbon tax, to deal with the threat of global warming.

    In several recent blogposts, I’ve raised what I believe to be legitimate questions about the Obama administration’s technology policy. I did so in more detail in a followup post called “Kites, Coal and Waxman-Markey” that can be found at http://www.marcgunther.com/?p=945 and at The Energy Collective at http://tiny.cc/tfE1w. Obviously we disagree about how involved the government should be in markets, but I believe we both want the same outcome–global action to head off the catastrophic effects of climate change.

    Having said that, I don’t understand why you turn differences of opinion into personal attacks, not just on me but on Andrew Revkin, The Breakthrough Institute, Fred Hiatt, Matt Wald, Jacob Weisberg and, for that matter, George Will. Would you say the things you do if we were to meet in person? I can only speak for myself when I say I’m doing my best to work my way through an issue of considerable scientific, technological and economic complexity, about which reasonable and well-meaning people are going to disagree. Why be disagreeable about it?

    [JR: The piece calls your analysis "astonishingly uninformed" and mostly relies on sarcasm, rather than what I would call a direct personal attack of the kind that the blogosphere is known for. Your piece, though, is a pretty strong attack on Chu and his colleagues -- and through Reuters gets a lot more eyeballs than anything I write.

    I confess that my level of frustration at this sort of analysis appearing in Reuters, let alone Greenbiz.com, is off the charts. Many of the clean energy businesses today have succeeded because of federal investments of a kind that you vilify.

    Had you kept to the standard attack on the government picking winners and losers, I probably wouldn't have singled it out. But by attacking the battery program by itself -- which is not the government picking winners and losers as it is normally defined, since the government has a biofuels program, for instance -- and indeed for attacking all government research beyond basic research, well, you were allying yourself with the hard-core Gingrich-ites who tried to shut down all applied research at the Department of Energy, but thankfully failed.

    If you can launch a very widely read attack on the people who are pursuing what I would consider to be no-brainer RD&D based on what I consider to be very poor analysis, I think I can launch an attack on your analysis. I view my critique as less "personal" than your questioning the trustworthiness of the Nobel prize-winning physicist in charge of DOE and his staff, most of which are probably quite dedicated civil servants who have spent decades doing precisely what you seem to think is so incredibly unusual -- independent, competitive solicitations in cleantech.

    You wrote "do we really want to entrust him and his staff to decide which battery technologies are likely to succeed and which companies can most wisely spend that $2.4 billion?" Like I said, the DOE has been doing this for three decades now, quite successfully as my link on energy efficiency shows. So what is it about Chu and his staff that are all of a sudden untrustworthy compared to his predecessors?

    If you think my critiques are based on differences of "opinion," than I can probably understand your response. But I worked at the Department of Energy for five years, 3 overseeing the office of energy efficiency and renewable energy, so in this case I tend to see my critique as based on experience and fact.

    As for my harsh critiques of "Andrew Revkin, The Breakthrough Institute, Fred Hiatt, Matt Wald, Jacob Weisberg and, for that matter, George Will" -- I can't imagine why you would want to put yourself in with most of that crowd!

    My father was a newspaper editor for 30 years and he would be stunned to see what passes for journalism these days. My guess is that you are a far better journalist than Hiatt, whose behavior is beyond the pale. No apologies for a single word I have written about him. Indeed, his ongoing behavior vindicates everything I have written about him.

    George Will spews disinformation and lies. No apologies for a single word I have written about him.

    Same for TBI.

    Revkin and Wald are people I have known a long time and I have tried to write about them with as much fairness as I can, given some of the stories they have written. Revkin still owes an apology to Gore. His smear of the reputation of Al Gore on the pages of the New York Times based on nothing but crap spun out by Roger Pielke, Jr makes anything I have ever done on this blog look like a softball from Larry King.

    Weisberg made one egregious blunder, and I consider that critique fair.

    The thing is -- all of the journalists here, including you, have a much much much bigger audience than I do, and need to hold themselves to a much much much higher standard than they apparently do.

    The stakes here are so damn high -- the health and well-being of the next 50 generations -- that yes, I am very blunt in my criticism. Do I occasionally go too far? Perhaps. But I have a long, long way to go before I catch up with the people you listed there.

    If you want an apology from me, then publish a balanced piece in Reuters and Greenbiz.com in which you retract your attack on the trustworthiness of Steven Chu and his staff for merely doing the job that Congress required them to do by law. And don't just quote the Wall Street Journal in an unbalanced attack on the applied energy research that every other country does, that we have done for 3 decades, and that is crucially needed to avert catastrophic global warming.]

  7. Seth Masia says:

    What made my jaw drop was this sentence:

    Much as I admire Steven Chu, the energy secretary, do we really want to entrust him and his staff to decide which battery technologies are likely to succeed and which companies can most wisely spend that $2.4 billion?

    Well, yes we do want Nobel laureates in physics to predict which technologies are likely to succeed. Better than entrusting The Invisible Hand, which usually doesn’t know what the other hand is doing. Chu and his competent staff are scientists and engineers with long experience in development projects. If I could be assured that my mutual fund managers had access to that kind of expertise, I’d trust them to make my high-tech investments for me. But investors don’t hire advisers of this calibre, so I’ll trust the governement.

  8. MikeN says:

    We’ll be importing electric cars regardless of who develops them. Unless you are proposing increasing tariffs.

  9. max says:

    I am amazed at how thin skinned Marc Gunther is. Who do people like him, including George Will, Pielke, etc think they are, that they are not to be vigorously debated and exposed when they publish uninformed or counter-factual claims? The level of so-called journalism in America is abysmal-Joe Romm is providing some critically needed peer review!

  10. HealThoid says:

    Interesting… But what sign on novelties of the news?

  11. paulm says:

    Global Economy – as long as its not globalized (unless we come up with CO2 free trade)

  12. Leland Palmer says:

    I can only speak for myself when I say I’m doing my best to work my way through an issue of considerable scientific, technological and economic complexity, about which reasonable and well-meaning people are going to disagree. Why be disagreeable about it?

    Oh, the old “disagree without being disagreeable” line. I remember Ken Starr using it, in round saintly tones, even while trying to get Bill Clinton impeached with his perjury trap trickery, because Bill Clinton didn’t want to answer questions about his sex life.

    I’m sure Ken Starr practiced this line in front of the mirror, when he was not accepting million dollar fees for defending tobacco companies. This “disagree without being disagreeable” line was part of his million dollar lawyer act, and he used it to provide cover while he ripped the hearts out of his opponents.

    So, I’m not sure that this use of the “disagree without being disagreeable” line is sincere, either.

    We climate realists do feel passionate about global warming, but not as passionate as we should feel. Most of us are still numb, and are still somewhat in denial, about what our logical minds tell us is almost certainly going to be a catastrophe, which we may not be able to turn around.

    Global warming denialists should keep in mind that if the climate does go out of control, there may not be time to turn it around, but there will certainly be time for revenge against those that caused it and knowingly lied about it, even as the climate destabilizes. I hope that they take this fact into account, when they add up the economic profit and losses.

  13. Modesty says:

    Well said, Leland. That line rarely comes across as sincere and maybe rarely is.

    It struck me as interesting, too, that Gunther should use that particular line, a favorite of one of the people implicitly included on the “list”–and use the “‘Mr.’ Romm.” *Sincerity* is not the first thing that comes to mind in reading Gunther’s response.

    This, by the way, is not a personal attack on Gunther. This is a claim about his writing, and how it comes across to this reader, in the broader context of writing on these issues.

    Gunther could of course be entirely sincere, just really unfamiliar with this terrain, which seems fairly likely given his apparent unfamiliarity with the central topic currently at stake.

    So, I wanted to suggest an additional approach. Grant Gunther the benefit of the doubt wrt sincerity (for now). And just ask that he look to his own behavior with fresh eyes to see if perhaps HIS behavior is the more disagreeable.

    Uninformed, and, as a consequence, misleading, writing for a large audience on a critical issue at a critical time? Is engaging in that activity not SO much more ugly, foul, and disagreeable than it is for Joe to call it out as “astonishingly uninformed”?

  14. David B. Benson says:

    I am long beyond astonishment at the amount and intensity of anti-enlightment, ignorant junk in media and especially in the blogosphere.

    I am rather surprised that Joe Romm can still maintain some level of astonishment… :|