There’s lots of reason for optimism about clean technologies, Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) told a packed crowd on Tuesday afternoon at the RETECH 2011 Keynote Session. New ideas are emerging, costs are coming down and deployment is increasing, she noted—all welcome developments for America’s energy supply and the global environment. The rapid growth of the renewables is partially due to federal policies, but much of the progress has been a "direct result of your creativity and determination."
Yet there’s also genuine reason for concern. "It can’t be all sunshine and roses," she said. "It’s not just our economy that’s faltering–it’s the global economy. Many nations, including our own, are deep in debt and unable to support even existing programs. Budget cuts have now begun here at home, and the Breakthrough Institute has determined that more than 70% of the federal support for renewable energy has either expired already or will expire within the next three years."
The ranking Republican of the Senate Energy and Natural Energy Resources Committee also noted that both investment and deals concerning clean technologies from the private sector had slowed down significantly, as companies laid off workers and shut down. One example was the "sudden and dramatic failure" of solar manufacturer Solyndra, the first recepient of a Department of Energy’s loan guarantee. That company filed Chapter 11 bankruptcy earlier this month and is under federal investigation.
"Right now, a lot of people wonder things are going to turn around for the better, or if it’s possible for them to become even worse," Murkowski said. The answer was uncertain, but whatever the solution, it should cater to an ‘all of the above’ approach and "certainly include a place for renewable energy," she said. "We should promote everything from energy efficiency to hydropower and clean coal. But we also have to be careful. Our policies can’t sacrifice the economy or the budget for the environment. We have to protect all three."
So how to accomplish this? The senator outlined a number of steps taken by federal, states, and local governments, as well as private companies, that included reducing industry cost of regulatory compliance. "Streamlining the regulatory and permitting requirements for new technologies could provide a significant boost to their competitiveness, at little to no cost to the government," she said. "That’s a challenge that should be tackled immediately."
Next, Congress can provide greater certainty in legislation, she said. "For about three years running, we’ve had a near-constant prospect of an energy debate on the Senate floor. Not once during that time has the Senate actually debated energy policy, but the chance that we will has had a detrimental effect. The anticipation and uncertainty that results from a promised debate cannot possibly be helpful to your ability to draw private investment dollars," she said, drawing applause.
Beyond that, the government could provide greater certainty and stability in federal policy–but the private sector, too, could work together to determine its top priorities and make a concerted, coordinated effort to se them through to enactment. "Find “pay-fors,” find offsets, and agree to eliminate authorizations that are no longer relevant. And be judicious about the types of support you ask for, as well."
One of the toughest hurdles the renewable industry will face is funding, she said. "We are $15 trillion in debt right now. Twelve members of Congress have less than two months left to identify $1.5 trillion in savings over the next ten years. Suffice to say, it’s a lot easier to cut spending than to increase it right now."
The senator strongly urged attendees to "prepare for a time when federal funding is greatly restricted." The predicament offered the industry a "perfect opportunity" to develop a strong Plan B where it could form new partnerships and focus on building supply chains with less help from the government.
"Government cuts could be a threat to your industry – but this is also an opportunity to demonstrate just how far your industry has come. So I urge you to focus intensely on competitive business models and on driving your costs down," she said.
"When government funding is available, make sure it’s exactly what you need. If it doesn’t work for you, don’t hesitate to say so. It’s certainly in our interest to promote new technologies that can lower the cost of energy. But, clearly, it’s against our interest to focus on sources of energy that will depend on continuous, long-term subsidization."