Oil vs. Clean Energy Conundrum: Innovate, Don’t Altercate

While the battle over the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline rages on, energy analysts Matthew Stepp and Alex Trembath counsel a redeployment of the climate movement’s efforts. Writing in a Bloomberg op ed, the pair applaud the organizers of the anti-Keystone protests, including Bill McKibben’s 350.org, but recommend that they soon redirect their efforts on two fronts:

“Focus on replacing coal with cheap low-carbon alternatives. And push for more innovation across a suite of energy technologies — solar, wind, nuclear, batteries, and biofuels — to make them more able to compete on performance and price.”

“The stage is already set” for a transition away from coal, Stepp and Trembath argue, thanks to “the emergence of cheap natural gas from shale … and more stringent federal regulations on pollution. Today, just 38 percent of U.S. electricity comes from coal, down from 50 percent in 2007.”

The lesson for activists: “Innovation is the necessary first step in switching to cleaner energy sources. The natural-gas revolution grew out of 30 years of government investment in research and development of new drilling technologies.”

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Implicit in their argument is that while the development of relatively affordable and scalable substitutes puts the end of Old King Coal squarely in our sights, it will take continued innovation to bring about similar substitutes for Big Oil.

Stepp and Trembath are both friends and former colleagues, so it’s no surprise that I resonate with much of what they write.

I would make a friendly amendment to their case, however, and add that their column is best read as advice for what comes after the Keystone fight (rather than what should happen instead of it).

The armies are already arrayed on the Keystone battlefield, and I doubt anyone is backing down at this point! And I wish the “NoKXL” campaigners well. Either way, however, an imminent decision on the Keystone pipeline offers a new chance for refocus the movement’s efforts.

Finishing the fight against Old King Coal today while amping up the innovation needed to develop the affordable, scalable alternatives needed to ultimately tackle Big Oil as well is a winning climate strategy. Perhaps the only one…

With the right policies and activism, coal can be brought to it’s knees in America in the next decade. But that opportunity is due in large part to the innovations of the past three decades in natural gas and renewables that have made these fuels affordable substitutes for coal.

That’s why it makes sense to focus on battling Old King Coal today. For Big Oil to be next (and it must be) we must also accelerate the next wave of innovation needed to develop affordable scalable substitutes for oil.

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I recognize that drawing a line in the sand around a major, tangible project like Keystone offers a prime opportunity for organizing. Finding a way to rally around stronger and better investments in low-carbon energy innovation is a more challenging task for climate campaigners. But it’s a challenge that cannot be ignored.

The need for substantial innovation to develop alternatives to oil is unassailable. While tremendous progress has been made, alternative transportation and fuel technologies today are clearly inadquate as a global substitute for oil. More fuel efficient vehicles are making a dent in oil consumption, but can’t alone drive emissions from oil down to zero. Electric vehicle batteries must become roughly twice as energy dense and half as costly before plug-in or electric cars can take substantial market share from conventional gasoline vehicles.

That may require fundamentally new battery chemistries and technologies to achieve. Next generation biofuels remain largely pre-commercial. And no one yet has any idea how to produce a cost effective, energy dense substitute for jet fuels.

Unfortunately, while the case for accelerated innovation is clear, public investments in advanced energy research, development, demonstration, and deployment are stalling.

As author and journalist Mike Grunwald points out on Twitter, new clean energy substitutes are emerging today, thanks in large part to historic investments in clean energy deployment & innovation marshalled by the Recovery Act. But those one-time investments have now come to an end, threatening a turn from boom to bust.

President Obama and his administration frequently touted the Recovery Act’s clean energy investments as a “down payment” on a new energy economy. Sadly, we are still waiting today for the first real mortgage check!

Instead of sustained investments, thanks to the Sequester and the 2013 budget resolution, Congress is cutting federal investments in Department of Energy RD&D programs by nearly half a billion dollars ($446.5 million in total for FY2013).

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Reversing this trend and expanding and accelerating national investments in low-carbon energy innovation should be a central priorities of any effective climate movement.

It’s important to note that I am not counseling the climate movement to sit back and “wait for technology to save us” rather than confront the challenging political realities holding back a clean energy transition. Efforts to win political reforms and efforts to accelerate technology innovation are not mutually exclusive.

They aren’t even true substitutes, but rather complements. The better performing and lower cost we make substitutes for fossil fuels, the easier the political effort required to transition our society to an ultra-low-carbon energy system. The more successful we are at transforming society to rely less heavily on existing forms of mobility and other energy services, the easier the energy technology transformation becomes.

At the same time, the limitations of existing politics and political institutions are every bit as real as the limitations of existing technologies. Wishing either away gets us nowhere. A smart climate movement would instead focus on building on what has worked.

As Stepp and Trembath write, the Sierra Club’s “Beyond Coal” campaign has proven just how effective climate campaigning can be when it targets an incumbent fossil fuel already challenged by the emergence of affordable, scalable substitutes. As the pair write, the Beyond Coal campaign “credits itself with closing 142 coal plants, with plans to shut down one-third of the U.S. fleet by 2030.”

The Sierra Club and its many savvy allies have put Old King Coal on the ropes in America. That’s a tectonic shift in American politics. He may not be down and out yet, but with the right series of blows, he’ll go down hard.

But why did this effort succeed? In large part because decades of successful effort on the innovation front — in renewables and efficiency and, yes, in natural gas — brought about real competitors for coal’s market share. With the right political push, these competitors could eat away at coal’s dominance. But without these technologies, the political efforts would never have gotten half as far.

That’s a lesson climate campaigners must internalize as they turn the fight to oil.

I also respect the case about avoiding lock-in while simultaneously pushing to accelerate energy innovation and finish off coal. It may make sense to devote selected effort to blocking specific, long-lived oil-related infrastructure projects like Keystone XL.

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At the same time, it’s hard to escape the conclusion that in the near-term, the core of any workable plan to eventually displace oil depends more today on accelerated innovation than it does on direct confrontation.

Originally written for TheEnergyCollective.com. TheEnergyCollective.com features the world’s best thinkers on energy & climate change. The site features news and commentary on topics including energy efficiency, climate change, energy storage, nuclear energy, renewable energy, smart grid, energy innovation, and cleantech. For more, visit TheEnergyCollective.com and follow us on Twitter @EnergyCollectiv

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