Thursday, March 15, 2012

You Say You Want a Revolution? Well, you know, we'd all love to see the plan.

A piece of advice: Don't read this article from the State House News Service (via WickedLocal) with your eyes too widely opened. They just might roll right out of your head.
Gov. Deval Patrick’s top energy and environment adviser called Tuesday for a “revolution” in the state’s green energy sector, urging more than 100 energy company executives to “take the clean energy discussion out to every city or town in the commonwealth of Massachusetts.
“It is now time to turn from reform to energy revolution,” said Richard Sullivan, secretary of energy and environmental affairs, adding, “As we start to move this revolution forward, we need all of you more than ever.”
Sullivan highlighted clean energy laws passed in the 2007-2008 legislative session, including the Green Communities Act – a bill spearheaded by former Speaker Salvatore DiMasi to encourage the expansion of renewable energy, incentivize cities and towns to support local clean energy projects and require utilities to transmit a small percentage of their energy from renewable sources. Although critics have maligned the law as overly prescriptive and a driver of high energy costs, Sullivan hailed the law as “genius” for bringing municipalities into the discussion.
Sullivan addressed company executives at a capitol event hosted by the state Clean Energy Center and the New England Clean Energy Council, a coalition of hundreds of local energy company executives hoping to win support for their sector from lawmakers.
So where to start? How about here: It isn't a private sector energy company executive's job to "take the clean energy discussion out to every city or town in the commonwealth" to push a policy "revolution." His job is to manage his company and make money. Unless, that is, his company happens to depend on government largess in order to make money - which is too often the case when it comes to so-called "green companies" in Massachusetts and elsewhere these days. [Related: Evergreen No More] In that context it makes perfect sense for "100 energy company executives" to jam a room and sign on as Patrick Administration lobbyists in exchange for a chance to "win support for their sector from lawmakers."

"Support for their sector," of course, is Beacon Hill-speak for 'more taxpayer money poured into the insatiable green maw.'

Green: And Still Hungry
Notice Secretary Sullivan's casual brush-off of the astronomical cost of implementing the Green Communities Act - recently pegged by Attorney General Martha Coakley at $4 billion over four years. "Although critics have maligned the law as overly prescriptive and a driver of high energy costs, Sullivan hailed the law as 'genius' for bringing municipalities into the discussion." No doubt Sullivan is right - I'm sure $4 billion can buy an awful lot of "discussion," as Lt. Governor Tim Murray doubtless knows (but don't ask to see his cell phone bill!).

 Here's some more:
[Sullivan's] comments came in a packed hearing room alongside the two lawmakers – Sen. Benjamin Downing (D-Pittsfield) and Rep. John Keenan (D-Salem), co-chairs of the telecommunications, utilities and energy committee – charged by legislative leadership with crafting a bill to reduce energy costs and expand the clean technology sector. Downing and Keenan have been tight-lipped about potential components of that proposal, although Downing said after the event that he hoped to have a bill out next week.
There it is, folks. Right there. A perfectly distilled explanation for why energy costs in Massachusetts continue to climb. A legislative committee has been "charged by legislative leadership with crafting a bill to reduce energy costs and expand the clean technology sector."

I've typed it before, but this bears repeating: Right now, in the reality where most of us live, "reducing energy costs" and "expanding the clean technology sector" are contradictory mandates. The two imperatives work against each other. It's like saying a committee has been charged with starting a fire to freeze water.

The single greatest impediment to Secretary Sullivan's desired "clean energy revolution" is the cold, hard, immutable fact that renewable energy is more expensive than conventional energy. An equally immutable corollary to that inconvenient truth is this one: Government policies that push reliance on more expensive sources of energy will drive up the cost of energy.

Every time I hear a state official pay lip service to the high cost of energy in Massachusetts I ask the same question - "what ideas do you have to deal with that other than 'expand the clean energy sector'?" And every time - Every. Single. Time. - I get back the same non-response. Nobody argues that so-called "clean energy" is not in fact more expensive than energy from conventional sources (including suddenly plentiful natural gas, which is orders of magnitude cleaner than coal). But no Democratic official yet of the more than half dozen to whom I've put that same question has offered even a single proposal to actually bring down the increasing cost of our energy.

Worse, they keep doing things to exacerbate the problem. See Exhibit A: Cape Wind. See also Exhibit B: Secretary Sullivan's call for a "clean energy revolution."

Lieutenant Governor Murray also appeared at yesterday's lobbyist recruitment event, claiming that the Massachusetts clean energy sector has "added 65,000 jobs" during the recession. Obviously he has not yet received the memo about the thorough debunking of the jobs numbers that the Patrick Administration has been crowing about for the past year-plus. No matter. The LG's real contribution to the event was his unintended acknowledgement of the the Administration's continued elevation of rhetoric over substance.
Speaking with reporters after the event, Murray struggled to name any specific policy that state officials could employ to further grow the sector.
“That’s what a day like today is about, to learn whether there are opportunities to grow,” he said. “It’s a winner and we want to continue to grow …
Ah, the invaluable "discussion" again. If the economy could run on political hot air, does anyone doubt Massachusetts truly would lead the nation out of this stubbornly persistent downturn?

I realize that my rants could easily earn me the label "anti-clean energy." But that isn't accurate. Oh, I am anti-green fetishism for sure. And I'm very much anti- spraying government money willy-nilly at anything bearing a self-applied "green" label, which is a pretty fair characterization of both state and federal government policy over the past half decade or so.

But I am very much in favor of "clean energy." Total reliance on a finite asset is a bad idea, whether or not one believes that we are currently anywhere close to the end of the planet's supply of fossil fuels. Reliance on a finite asset largely in the control of hostile nations is worse. Nurturing and developing renewable energy technologies is a fine policy goal - but it has nothing to do with reducing energy costs in the short or even the medium-to-long term.

So long as policy makers continue to pretend that "reducing energy costs" and "expanding the clean energy sector" are not conflicting imperatives, we will continue to see taxpayer money squandered on companies that are popular politically but unsound economically - as energy costs march ever higher.

UPDATE: By coincidence, the President is "hammering" Republicans on this issue today. From Politico:
“Lately, we’ve heard a lot of professional politicians — a lot of the folks who, you know, are running for a certain office, who shall go unnamed — they’ve been talking down new sources of energy. They dismiss wind power. They dismiss solar power. They make jokes about biofuels,” Obama said. “They were against raising fuel standards because apparently they like gas guzzling cars better. We’re trying to move towards the future, and they want to be stuck in the past.”
Those same people, Obama said, would’ve thought the Earth was flat, that television wouldn’t last, that the automobile was only a passing fad.
Such arrogance. Such condescension.

Those "folks" the President is sneering at - most of them, anyhow - do not "dismiss wind power" and make "jokes about biofuels" because they don't think it would be swell if someone would invent a windmill-fueled car or a way to power New York City with horse manure. They (we!) criticize the President's energy policy because its every element is focused on the far-distant future, based on 'ifs' and 'mights' and 'coulds,' while in the here and now soaring energy prices are sucking the strength right out of a sputtering economic recovery. Voters want their President to do something about energy costs right now, not fifty years from now.

"For close to a month," notes Politico, "Obama has been making at least one speech a week on his energy policy... [b]ut public opinion hasn't turned in his favor."

Maybe that is because the public isn't so stupid as the President thinks we are. And because while we all enjoy dreaming of the future, we are obliged to live in the present.

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