Can America Overcome Its Split Personality On Energy?

The past two weeks have brought home this country’s split personality when it comes to our energy policy.

Maybe it’s because I just moved from Washington, D.C. to California that I’m unusually focused on the entrenched differences between national and state policy, but it sure seems like America will never overcome the two separate identities: one that recognizes the need to continue moving toward a more secure, diversified, and sustainable energy future, and one that clings to the status quo.

Here’s an example. Last week the House of Representatives voted to pass the 2013 appropriations bill for energy and water programs, which essentially determines national spending level for key water and energy infrastructure next year. Here’s what the measure does: it cuts $75 million — nearly one-third of the entire program budget — from the popular ARPA-E program, which funds some of the most critical cutting-edge research on new and advanced energy technologies so that they can be commercialized in the U.S. and bring back jobs and profits to U.S. companies. It cuts funding by half a billion dollars for the Department of Energy’s Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy program, which provides targeted support for advanced vehicles, advanced manufacturing and other clean energy programs that are revitalizing regions like Detroit, Toledo, and Richmond California. It cuts funding for basic research and scientific data collection from the Energy Information Administration and the Office of Science.

These reductions may seem small in the overall budget debate, but they’re critical for America’s energy future — and, in fact, for our overall competitiveness. We are an innovation-based economy facing one of the world’s greatest challenges in the threat of climate change. We can’t afford to undermine our own universities, labs, and entrepreneurs as they work to find creative answers to that threat, and to turn those answers into profitable, commercializable, exportable products for the global market — a market, by the way, that saw record investments in renewable energy last year. It’s sheer lunacy to gut these programs, which leverage billions in private financing while creating jobs and homegrown industries. That’s why a bipartisan group of 165 House members opposed the bill when it came to a vote last Wednesday, and why the White House has flat out stated it will veto the bill if it comes to the President’s desk in its current form.


But wait: America has a whole other personality that’s forging ahead toward a new energy future. States like California are leading the way on innovative energy solutions. Last week, as Congress was sticking its head in the sand, the Environmental Defense Fund and Collaborative Economics released a report showing that California’s major clean energy sectors have been booming since the 1990s. These sectors, including renewable energy, efficiency, clean transportation, and energy storage, haven’t just grown in the past 20 years — they’ve outpaced growth in the state’s economy as a whole, even during the worst years of the recession: Employment in these sectors has jumped 109 percent since 1995, while employment in the state as a whole grew only 12 percent. And these numbers will only go up once the state implements its program to cap carbon emissions, known as A.B. 32.

Importantly, the largest share of new jobs in California was in firms that mostly do advanced manufacturing, in clean energy and also more traditional industries. The manufacturing sector, as I’ve argued before, contributes more to our overall innovation and competitive edge than any other sector in the American economy.

So what’s going on here? Apparently, America has a split personality: one side, clutching to the fading glory of a fossil fuel-driven past, believing the best energy policy is to cut off support for new ideas and solutions; the other side, eager for innovation and the jobs it creates, is turning to California and other states that are leading the way toward America’s advanced energy future.

According to the Cleveland Clinic, multiple personality disorders usually occur after some kind of trauma, and the affected person adopts a new personality to find a “temporary mental escape.” Perhaps Congress, faced with the enormity of climate change, is simply looking for a way to cope. Or maybe our national leaders truly believe that energy policies supporting natural resource extraction and export serve our future better than more advanced, more sustainable policies that support invention, sophisticated manufacturing and advanced energy technologies that can serve the booming global energy marketplace.

Whatever is causing Congress’s mental state when it comes to energy, the result is undermining America’s climate stability, energy security, and economic prosperity. It’s time to seek therapy, and to do what’s right to get America on a healthy track to leading the energy future.


Kate Gordon is Director of Advanced Energy and Sustainability at the Center for the Next Generation. She is also a CAP Senior Fellow. This piece was originally published at the Huffington Post and was reprinted with permission.