"New York Times makes excuses while Portugal shows U.S. how to move forward"
Our guest blogger is CAP’s Richard Caperton, Policy Analyst at the Center for American Progress.
Yesterday’s New York Times article (“Portugal Gives Itself a Clean Energy Makeover“) on Portugal’s transition to a clean energy economy should be welcome news for renewable energy advocates. Portugal’s experience validates what we’ve all been saying for years: reliance on fossil fuels is dangerous, renewables are affordable, and extensive use of renewable electricity is technically possible. Unfortunately, the article “balances” all of these lessons with misleading comparisons to the United States and wildly overblown descriptions of the cost and difficulty of the transition.
The impressive news, and the real story in the article, is that good policy and forward-thinking leadership have helped Portugal make a quick transition away from fossil fuels. As the article states, “Nearly 45 percent of the electricity in Portugal’s grid will come from renewable sources this year, up from 17 percent just five years ago,” an astounding 264 percent increase.
Why has Portugal been so successful? Because their politicians are willing to put themselves on the line and lead the country. Here’s an illustrative paragraph from the article:
“You cannot imagine the pressure we suffered that first year,” said Manuel Pinho, Portugal’s minister of economy and innovation from 2005 until last year, who largely masterminded the transition, adding, “Politicians must take tough decisions.”
And after getting elected, Portuguese officials didn’t mess around with low-level incentives and meaningless goals. Instead, they implemented the most successful renewable electricity incentive in the world: a feed-in tariff. The Times article skirts this issue and talks more about improvements to the transmission grid and changes in utility regulation, but the fact is that feed-in tariffs provide the long-term certainty and predictability that project developers need to invest in renewable energy. As a brand new National Renewable Energy Laboratory report on feed-in tariffs states, “[Feed-in tariffs] are responsible for approximately 75% of global PV and 45% of global wind deployment.”
The lesson for the U.S. politicians is clear: it is possible to implement policies that work and get elected at the same time.
Unfortunately, this is where the Times falls short. Instead of holding up Portugal as an example to emulate, the article attempts to show why the U.S. is different. For example, there’s a cumbersome description of the history of utility deregulation, with the implication being that we could never do it in the U.S. What this ignores, however, is that we’ve already done the same thing. While our ownership structure for transmission is different from Portugal’s, FERC rules have led to the creation of independent system operators and many states have laws that have separated generation, transmission, and distribution into different businesses.
The Times accurately describes why we need to build new transmission to support wide scale renewable deployment. Of course, this will cost money, but it’s not nearly as cost-prohibitive as the Times would lead one to believe. They cite a Pew report estimating that the U.S. needs to spend $3-$4 billion per year to build the transmission needed for new renewables, but fail to put this in proper scale. Four billion is a lot of money, but it’s about 1% of annual electricity sales in the U.S. This investment would also have a very quick pay-off in the U.S., where we have a whopping 300 GW of planned wind energy investment that’s being held up because of insufficient access to transmission, according to a new report from Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.
Perhaps most distressingly, the Times makes no mention of the coming climate change catastrophe if every country in the world doesn’t follow Portugal’s example. This is a glaring omission, especially from this paragraph:
“I know it’s good for the country because it’s clean energy and it’s good for the landowners who got money, but it hasn’t brought me any good,” said Jos© Cristino, 48, a burly farmer harvesting grain with a wind turbine’s thrap-thrap-thrap in the background. “I look at these things day and night.” He said 90 percent of the town’s population had been opposed.
Sure, Mr. Cristino may not have seen any good yet, but it’s only a matter of time until he sees a whole lot of bad. If he’s concerned about having to look at windmills near his land, he should ask Russian farmers how bad a devastating climate change induced drought looks.
And, why didn’t the Times seek out the views of any of the landowners who are now getting a brand new paycheck from leasing their land for wind turbines? As CAP’s Jake Caldwell describes, taking action on climate change can dramatically increase farm income.
Finally, the Times closes with one of the more inane quotes in the article:
“Broadly, Europe has had great success in this area,” said Mr. Juech, the analyst at Garten Rothkopf. “But that is the result of huge government support and intervention, and that raises questions about what happens when you have an economic crisis or political change; will these technologies still be sustainable?”
Even if we ignore the preposterous notion that economic crisis or political change somehow affect the inherent environmental sustainability of renewable electricity, this quote is still nonsense. Not only has Europe been successful in implementing renewable energy, but they’ve actually answered Mr. Juech’s question. Throughout the recent economic calamity, and over the course of elections that have changed governments across the continent, Europe’s shift away from fossil fuels has not slowed. Renewable technologies are our only choice at sustainability and we need leadership who will implement the right policies to make the transition to clean energy as quickly as possible.
— Richard Caperton is Policy Analyst at the Center for American Progress.