The Solar Investment Tax Credit has been extended, and the market for mortgage debt "rescued," but neither renewable energy nor the rest of the economy are out of the woods. We’ll probably be feeling the effects of the financial imbalances which have built up in our economy for years to come.
While the extension of the tax credit will help renewable energy technologies raise funding, the headwinds from the continued fallout of the structured finance and real estate bubble will be blowing in the other direction. This will be a problem both for developers of new technologies, and project developers. On the other hand, changes in the ITC (allowing it to offset the AMT, and removal of the public utility exemption) allow new investors, such as property and casualty insurers, into tax equity investing. These investors are likely to be more cautious, but they are likely to be there.
The good news is that we already have the technology we need to decarbonize the economy. The key now is adapting our regulatory structure and infrastructure to accept the technologies we already have. Unarguably, project finance has become more difficult with the drying up of many pools of capital, but that is not the end of the story.
Too Much Money
When money was relatively cheap, investors grew careless choosing their investments, most dramatically in structured mortgage products, but also in other sectors. Now investors are more likely to careful about where they put their money. For marginal or speculative companies, this is bad news, but it could be an advantage for dull but profitable businesses which might have been overlooked previously.
The first steps towards decarbonizing out economy do not need to be high tech; they need to be hard work. Energy efficiency is cheap (in fact, it usually pays for itself in just a few years, if not months,) but often requires new ways of thinking. Investors and politicians have been quick to talk up photovoltaic companies. Using the energy we already have more efficiently seldom received more than lip service.
I think that’s likely to change, now that money is scarce. In politics, it’s no secret to anyone that the economy is hurting. Even John McCain figured it out a couple of weeks ago. This means that politicians are going to be looking for ways to help workers and create new jobs. But with money scarce, there will be a push to do as much as they can with as few taxpayer dollars as they can.
Energy Efficiency programs are an obvious option. Most energy efficiency measures save far more money in fuel costs than they cost to implement. This means that programs to promote energy efficiency put more money in peoples’ pockets than they cost to implement. This stimulates economic growth and jobs, all while reducing carbon emissions. Typically, many opportunities to save energy at low cost are missed because people are too busy or in too much of a hurry chasing the big score to spend time thinking about saving a few dollars a week by sealing their house or driving sensibly.
Policy can do a lot to promote energy efficiency, through utility energy efficiency programs, independent programs with mandates to help consumers save energy, as well as labeling and information schemes such as Energy Star, and incorporating energy efficiency into building codes and other standards, such as the CAFE standard for automobiles.
Because few consumers consider energy usage in their purchasing decisions, such legislative measures as those outlined above save consumers more money than they cost to implement, and boost the economy because less money is spent over time on imported energy, therefore more can be spent on goods produced locally, keeping the money in the local economy. Even in energy producing states, less money spent on locally produced energy means that more energy can be exported, also helping the local economy.
Transmission for Economic Transformation
Another traditional way for government to fight a slow economy is infrastructure spending. As I’ve long argued, in order to reduce our carbon emissions, we need better energy infrastructure far more than we need new energy technologies. Right now, our electrical grid is outdated and Balkanized. Just as the national highway system contributed as much as one-third of US economic growth in the 1950s by facilitating the transport of goods across the country, a national electric transmission system would contribute to national growth by lowering electricity prices in areas without abundant cheap generation, and adding export income in areas with inexpensive generation. A national transmission network, by providing export opportunities, would allow wind penetration in under populated, windy areas to grow beyond the needs of the local utility. A strong transmission backbone, combined with electricity demand responsive to price signals, and electricity and heat storage are how Denmark hopes to go from 20% to 50% wind penetration.
Price responsive electricity demand (which I discuss in my articles on the one-house grid and wind and heat pumps) and and a better transmission network both make the electricity market closer to the free market ideal. Any economist will tell you that improving price signals in a market or broadening the pool of possible buyers will improve market efficiency. Efficient markets bring economic gains, which is why transmission investments (not to mention investments in smart metering to improve the price response of demand) are not only wins for renewable energy, but wins for the economy.
Might a slowing economy make political authorities see the potential of improving our electricity transmission? Transmission advocate Charles Benjamin of Western Resource Advocates thinks it might. At the Second Annual Concentrating Solar Power Summit, he told the story of how he persuaded the Republican Public Utilities Chairmen to support a transmission authority. Key to his argument was the fact that electricity rates in East Kansas were six times the rates in West Kansas, so it was clear how West Kansas residents were losing out due to lack of transmission from one side of the state to the other.
Mr. Benjamin is currently making progress getting a similar transmission authority in Nevada, despite the fact that the local utility hates the idea. The key to this battle is bringing politicians to the realization that what is good for the utility is not necessarily good for the public, and that he was having success pitching transmission as an economic development tool.
Rather than a hindrance, Mr. Benjamin thinks the current economic crisis is making the case for improved transmission in Nevada easier, not harder.
Google CEO Eric Schmidt seems to agree.
Those of us who want to see the whole nation have access to plentiful renewable energy can hope that the same will hold true in our nation’s capitol.