November 18, 2009
Into the Lion’s Den: ITIF’s Atkinson Tells CAP Why We Need to Make Clean Energy Cheap
Speaking at a panel on building a clean energy economy, ITIF President and "Rising Tigers, Sleeping Giant" co-author Rob Atkinson declared that current technologies are not enough to create a competitive domestic clean energy industry and that major investments in energy innovation are necessary to make clean energy cheap and abundant.
Ironically, the panel, titled "The American Clean Energy Economy In 2020: What Should It Look Like And How Should We Get There?" was hosted by the Center For American Progress (CAP), which has uncritically supported the Waxman-Markey climate legislation even though it invests a paltry sum in clean energy innovation.
Citing Breakthrough's analysis, Atkinson dispelled the idea that a carbon price and some new regulations will be enough to get us where we need to go:
"I fully support some kind of pricing, carbon trading, whatever that is. I fully support that. But for us to think that that's going to get us where we need to go I think is just simply wrong. So what I would suggest we need to do is rather than set a high price or a higher cap...have a lower price and a bigger share to innovation.
...I mean, very, very little of [Waxman-Markey] went to innovation. What was our -- we estimated -- actually, Breakthrough estimated $1.2 billion a year out of that bill...I don't think it's going to get us where we need to go.
Atkinson expanded on the centrality of public investment and innovation to realizing a clean energy transformation, arguing that we need energy innovation comparable to that which enabled the IT revolution:
We are nowhere close enough to getting the technologies we need to solve climate change...Efficiency's not going to get us there. The current technology's not going to get us there, particularly at the price points. So we have to do innovation.
And it reminds me a little bit about where people were talking about the digital revolution in '95 as if we had the technology. What people don't realize, in '95 -- if I had my USB key with me, that USB key, in 1995, would have cost $10,000. Today, it costs $5. That's the reason we have the digital revolution.
It wasn't because we sort of had this static technology...We continued to innovate on a whole suite of areas to drive price down and increase performance...And I would argue that we're really in the same boat today with energy. We're not there yet.
Atkinson was joined on the panel by Kathleen McGinty, a former Secretary for the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection and current Director of NRG Energy.
McGinty echoed Rob's point and explained why we need both public and private investment, not one to the exclusion of the other, if the U.S. is going to compete in clean energy industries:
[V]enture capital alone is never going to get us to the kind of modernization of our energy infrastructure that we need...[T]he public needs to step up in this sector in building a modernized energy infrastructure for the United States, as we have stepped up in every previous generation; to build the fundamental infrastructure that we need to compete as a society.