When “Change” Comes to Energy Policy

January 21, 2009 at 2:17 pm
Contributed by: Chris

In this week’s Energy and Capital, I turn over a new leaf in honor of the new administration, and focus on the exciting opportunities for investing in the next generation of renewable energy and cleantech.

When “Change” Comes to Energy Policy

Time to Focus on Solutions

By Chris Nelder
Wednesday, January 21st, 2009

I had lunch last week with my old friend Brian Fan, who is now the senior director of research for the Cleantech Group. Since I became aware of peak oil in roughly 2002, we’ve had a long and vigorous dialogue about energy, its problems and its solutions. Brian has had the good fortune to be everywhere in the media lately, and is one of the leading champions of the burgeoning cleantech revolution.

He said something at lunch that has stuck with me ever since, to the effect of “Peakers are like the dog that finally caught the fire truck, after all these years. Now what? Everybody understands that we’ve got a serious energy problem. Cleantech isn’t just about the CO2 emissions anymore. What you need to do now is decide if you’re going to keep worrying about the problem, or start working on the solutions.”

It’s a fair point. Those who have tried to bring the message of looming supply limits on energy to the public, and had it fall on deaf ears for too many years, can get a little stuck in their ways.

I first started writing about the necessity of shifting from oil to renewables in my online magazine Better World Zine in 1995. Since then, our national energy strategy has mostly been going the wrong way. To me, peak oil was merely the dénouement of a long and progressively uglier tale, and the last eight years of oil industry influence in the White House have been, shall we say, climactic.

It may sound silly, but after my long study of peak oil and problems of energy depletion in general…after the hundreds of technical papers I’ve read…after all the conferences and lectures and presentations…after focusing for so long on how to simply get the message out above the din of the “Drill, Baby, Drill” crowd…after eight long years of my often virulent criticism of the Bush administration…it’s hard to let it all go.

But it’s a new day in America. As someone commented on Twitter on Monday during the inaugural concert, “1/19 is the opposite of 9/11.” It’s time to change from a national stance based on fear and rooted in the past, to one based in hope that is focused on the future. The pendulum has swung.

Last week, I was critical of what little we know at this point about Obama’s infrastructure plan, and how it will affect the future of transportation. I worried that it would focus too much on the short-term problem of maintaining cars and roads, to the exclusion of building a long-lasting and truly sustainable rail infrastructure.

In the spirit of hope and change on a most auspicious Inauguration Day, then, I shall focus this week on the right solutions that we can, and will, pursue.


Winners in the Obama Energy Revolution

Energy security will be a top priority under Obama’s leadership, as he seems to understand the peak oil threat. I haven’t seen him rule out any particular kind of energy, or try to pick winners. He appears to be in favor of any and all energy solutions that work, including oil, gas, coal, biofuels and nuclear energy; a wise approach since we will need them all. But he will particularly favor ones that take us down the path to reversing global warming. On that count, I have no doubt that renewable energy and efficiency will be clear winners.

Thermal efficiency is the obvious low-hanging fruit in the energy revolution, though its not a big, sexy, high-tech supply-side solution. Over the next four years, we will deploy Van Jones’ caulking-gun wielding army, and outfits like Sustainable Spaces in San Francisco will eliminate heat losses in millions of buildings, saving their owners 10-50% on their utility bills.

With oil and eventually all fossil fuels peaking and going into decline within the next 15-20 years, renewable energy is the future, without a doubt. It will take decades to begin to make up for fossil fuel depletion with renewable energy, so we had better get moving on it. From now on into the distant future, I anticipate a growing commitment to deploy wind and solar, and develop the next generation of renewable energy, including geothermal and marine energy. Batteries and other storage media will receive an enormous amount of attention as we search for a way to buffer the intermittency of renewable energy generators.

Smart grids, high-voltage long-distance transmission, next generation biofuels, biogas, CO2 sequestration—all of the new energy and cleantech technologies that I wrote about with Jeff Siegel and Nick Hodge in Investing in Renewable Energy—will ride the wave of Change.

There are now hundreds of startups working on these solutions. And though the supply of VC diminished during the market crash of the last six months, with a little confidence restored in the economy and in the leadership of our country, it will absolutely flood into these new technologies.

Obama’s inaugural address may have failed to live up to the enormously high expectations some people had for some Kennedy-esque sound bite, but I think it sent the right message for this moment in time: We have enormous challenges at hand, but with courage, hard work, and some sacrifice, we can overcome them.

Instead, he gave us a Lincoln-esque moment. One that frankly acknowledged the troubles we find ourselves in and resolved to find a middle way forward, in unity.

I believe and hope that when America chose him to lead us through this dark period in American history, we finally and truly turned the corner on our national energy strategy. We won’t make the kind of progress I’d like to see, and it won’t come quickly enough to allay my worries, but at least it will be in the right direction.

As Obama himself once said, “If you’re walking down the right path and you’re willing to keep walking, eventually you’ll make progress.”

Until next time,

chris nelder



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1 Comment

  1. Why would you change your approach simply because the US has had a leadership change? My view, dont let it go on the basis of a lunch (i suspect you wont) – fads including some cleantech fads will certainly come and go.

    The broader energy issues you have been tackling in the past extend beyond the boundaries of specifics of technologies and the US as a “nation state” – they affect every nation state and the global community. who knows what technologies will “power” our futures but yesterday’s clean will almost certainly be tomorrow’s “dirty” for one reason or another.

    In respect to your “obama holiday” – every new leader is due the benefit of the doubt, but the reality of “politics” is that in truth there are too many “idiots” or yes people in the “politic” globally (who are very near sighted – 3-4 year term). So the end result is little if any “absolute” longer term benefit to states or the globe.

    Frankly my view is that unless we end up with a “smart/integrated” global energy and environment policy – with the big global consumers/producers of all kinds of energy aligned – we (the people of the universe) are all going to suffer (its just a matter of time and how bad it hurts – this is not an especially green view, many will simply not have the “power” for currently normally expected power use at reasonable costs). Sure some may benefit financially due to being aligned to the “insider” smart deals, but overall my sense is that everyone will be worse off.

    me personally, i hope you and your friends keep up the “saw through the bone” analysis irrespective of “alliances”. there is too little “independent” comment available anywhere/anytime.

    the reality, smart leaders will take the limbs out of the way (so they dont get sawed off). the dumb ones wont – the “market or its equivalent” will deal with them.

    while we might not end up with “perfect” solutions, we are sure to end up with “better” ones. BUT – only if we have smart, non-aligned commentators and analysts who are the equal or betters of the company/govt appointed “spin doctors”


    Comment by j — January 28, 2009 @ 9:02 am

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