DENVER – The only consensus in the progressive community on energy is that the federal government needs to be spending a lot more money subsidizing alternative energy. Even the amount of money needed is in dispute. The far left Apollo Alliance is calling for $500 billion over ten years while Barack Obama is proposing a relatively modest $150 billion over ten years. The actual size of the spending only really matters if you care about the size of the debt we will pass on to our children. The more immediate question is what energy solutions do we throw the money at. That is where the consensus among the would be central planners completely breaks down.
T. Boone Pickens and Carl Pope want major federal investment in transmission lines for wind and solar. Barack Obama loves the ethanol that Illinois farmers grow. McCain wants 45 new nuclear power plants built by 2030. Others are big fans of geothermal power. Each one of these energies has their own unique problems including waste management, transmission, and affect on world food prices.
The different approaches that conservatives and liberals bring to energy really do define the two movements. Liberals and progressives want a panel of unelected experts to look at biofuels, wind, solar, nuclear, and geothermal and pick winners and losers by allocating tax dollars and instituting mandates. Conservatives believe the government should make sure there are no regulatory impediments to any of the energy industries, fund basic scientific research, and then get out of the way. Popular Mechanics editor in chief James Meigs writes in the October issue:
The government can play a role in advancing alternative energy. Tax incentives and regulatory relief can help. So can research money channeled through the National Science Foundation or DARPA. But let’s tread lightly when it comes to giving handouts to corporations in the name of research. Obama’s promise of billions in development funds sounds enticing. But who gets those dollars? It wasn’t too long ago that investors and politicians alike regarded Enron as a brilliant innovator in the energy field. If copious research funds had been available in Enron’s heyday, its executives would no doubt have found a way to pocket a share.
With oil trading at far over $100 a barrel, companies already have incentives to develop alternatives—the market will reward breakthroughs handsomely. In fields ranging from batteries to biofuels, there are hundreds of promising research projects under way. Some will succeed, some won’t. But we need scientists, entrepreneurs and consumers to pick the winners, not politicians. Finding solutions to our energy problems isn’t rocket science. It’s a lot tougher.