Things are not always as they seem.
I learned that, at first excitedly and then painfully, during my eight-month stint as Associate Editor of AOL Energy. I’ll be moving to Israel next month where I will be apprenticing with a midwife and continuing to cover the energy sector with a focus on Israeli clean tech.
During my first week at AOL Energy I wrote a story on wind energy, one that included an interview with an “expert” professor in the field. I was excited to learn that wind power was not as simple as it seemed and not as free and clean as a nature-lover like myself would have hoped. I learned that long and expensive transmission lines make wind power one of the most costly renewables to connect to the grid, and a lack of adequate transmission mean wind power is often wasted.
Several months later I learned that my “expert” source was a full time consultant to utilities and power companies, many of whom were incumbent fossil fuel companies that compete with wind. Though he may have been correct in his analysis of wind power, I realized I could not simply believe what someone told me, no matter how “expert” they were.
So I was shocked when I heard members of Congress doing exactly that. I covered a Senate Energy & Natural Resources Committee hearing on natural gas in early October that focused on safe development of shale gas. The four expert witnesses to present findings at the hearing were representing a seven-member panel that had written a 90-day report on the issue.
The four witnesses echoed one another in their enthusiasm for natural gas and its nearly limitless possibility of weaning America off of foreign oil and instead helping the country transition to a cleaner-burning fuel than coal. A long-time skeptic of hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”), I was nearly convinced by the four expert witnesses as were many of the Senators on the Committee.
But then a Democratic Senator piped in: Couldn’t the money that the witnesses said would be needed to pay for standardized safety measures in fracking come from the industry itself and not from the government as the experts had suggested? Indeed, many industries were required to pay for the costs of devising their own safety measures.
But a reasonable question was met with complete unreasonableness, or so it seemed to me. Even as they stumbled over their words, the witnesses insisted that the government, not the industry, should pay for regulatory measures. Why were they so adamant? Had someone from the industry paid them to be so enthusiastic about gas and so careful to divert costs? I had no idea, but I began to wonder.
After eight months of reporting on the energy industry, I’m still not sure who to believe. Solar company CEO’s tout solar because it is their technology and they want to see it succeed, biomass developers claim their technology is the best because from it they will see a profit, and natural gas drillers claim their technology is the best because for them it is an extremely profitable business. There is a real dearth of independent “true” facts. Even the think tanks are being funded by someone.
And while its not unusual that an industry is shaped by profit–indeed, that is business–it is unusual that an industry that is so vital to our everyday living, and that is so tied up with issues of national security and global climate change, is also being shaped by corporate interests.
It is also unusual for a business to have such a strong presence in government. When the Republicans pressured Obama on the payroll tax extension, they did not include a provision on televisions or medical supplies. It was the oil industry, with its Keystone XL pipeline, that was included as a rider in the bill. Some might argue that the pipeline is so critical to the United States that the Republicans simply could not bear to see it lying on the ground waiting for construction, but of all the issues that torment our nation, I think it is no accident that they chose this one as critical. The billions of dollars in profit involved are staggering.
So what can be done? America needs to act swiftly to create a long-term energy policy with logical tax incentives that aim to grow critical industries. Truly independent researchers need to be hired, from a multitude of research backgrounds. This country quickly needs to turn around its energy portfolio and instead of continuing to pour millions into oil and gas subsidies, begin supporting new breakthrough technologies that will allow us to cut emissions and power our cities. The current system of start and stop incentives is literally killing the renewable energy industry just as it started taking its first baby steps.
We are already competing against countries like China that have devised coherent long-term strategies for energy industry growth. And while China fails to be democratic and protect human rights, its top-down government approach has prevented self-interested businesses from swaying the government’s policies with well-paid convincing lobbyists.
Unlike most industries, the energy industry cannot be only about profit. Hundreds of miles of an interconnected electrical grid hooked up to thousands of power sources needs more than a regional transmission operator (RTO) to guide its path. It needs intelligent thoughtful leaders to make tough but critical and lasting decisions about the next 20-50 years. Otherwise, we may find ourselves in a terrible mess of volatile fossil fuel prices, frequent blackouts and carbon emissions that choke us, our children, and the planet.