Is solar energy now suddenly affordable and reliable despite its checkered history? Up until now, it has not been able to stand on its own two feet without substantial subsidies.
The authors of a two-year, taxpayer-funded study acknowledge that the answer to that question is: not quite. But that could change in short order, they argue, if public policy maximizes recent innovations.
In 2014, Stanford University's Steyer-Taylor Center for Energy Policy and Finance received a $618,155 grant from President Barack Obama's Energy Department to examine recent trends in China's solar energy industry and to determine what the international implications are of those trends.
Based on their findings, the center's research team recommends tighter cooperation between the U.S. and China on solar energy initiatives, increased U.S. government spending on research and development, and a steep U.S. price on carbon-based energy sources.
The report titled "The New Solar System" says that a price on carbon is needed to provide private enterprise with enough incentive to develop renewable energy sources, such as solar, to alleviate climate change. The research team doesn't exactly quantify how much of a price they would like to see, but they do make it clear that it should be as steep as possible. Here's what they recommend:
"More than any other single policy, a significant price on carbon in the United States would induce a market shift from higher-carbon to lower-carbon technologies," the report says. While there are carbon-pricing arrangements currently in place at the state level, the Stanford researchers find that they are not sufficient enough to result in any significant reduction of U.S. emissions. What's needed instead, they suggest, is "an intelligently crafted and meaningful price on carbon."
Energy consumers, who would be forced to absorb higher costs over the short-term, would supposedly benefit over time as the shift to renewable energy sources mitigates the effects of climate change. But, there's no guarantee that the benefits would outweigh the costs.
Heritage Foundation policy analysts Kevin Dayaratna and David Kreutzer have produced a study based on the Obama administration's models and assumptions that shows a tax on carbon would reduce household incomes, raise electricity prices, and cost hundreds of thousands of jobs with only a "minimal impact on climate."
However, policymakers might seek to impose a price on carbon, the hard reality is that U.S. consumers would be forced to absorb higher energy costs in the short-term in exchange for benefits that may not ever materialize.
Tom Pyle, the president of the Institute of Energy Research, a Washington-based nonprofit group devoted to a free market approach to energy policy, warns that taxpayers who are footing the bill for grants distributed through the Department of Energy, and other federal agencies, often lose out as a result of "crony deals" that enable "well-connected" former and current government officials to advance their own narrow special interests.
"What we see all too often with government grants is an incestuous relationship between a particular federal agency and former government officials who previously worked with that agency in some capacity," Pyle said. "These grant recipients manipulate and game system to their advantage at the expense of taxpayers. The end result of this particular grant to the Steyer-Taylor Center is a study that proposes to put a price on carbon and to double-down on solar energy. This means that taxpayers are losing twice both as taxpayers and as energy consumers. They are paying for a study that calls for policy makers to raise their electricity prices."
Dan Reicher, who serves as executive director for the center and holds faculty positions at Stanford, is one of the study's lead authors. Prior to joining Stanford, Reicher served in energy and environmental positions in the Carter, Clinton, and Obama administrations. He was also the director of Google's Climate Change and Energy Initiatives and has worked as an attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council, a nonprofit environmental advocacy group based in New York City.
As a long-time advocate for renewable energy from inside and outside of government, Reicher is well-positioned to solicit government grants.
I exchanged several emails with Reicher inviting him to comment on the merits of solar energy and the major findings of his report for this blog. As of Tuesday, he hasn't responded. His report does say that "the grant gave the Stanford Steyer-Center full independence and authority to frame the inquiry, conduct the research, draw conclusions and write the report."
But, it's also clear that the Steyer-Taylor team accepted the Obama administration's premise that human emissions are responsible for dangerous levels of global warming, a position that has become more untenable in recent years.
There are hundreds of scientists and researchers who have come forward to identify natural influences as the primary driver of climate change. How many of those scientists are eligible for government grants?
With the change in administration, Pyle is calling on Energy Secretary Rick Perry to conduct a thorough review of his agency's grant-making policies in an effort to root out instances of "cronyism" that work against the public interest.
Kevin Mooney (@KevinMooneyDC) is a contributor to the Washington Examiner's Beltway Confidential blog. He is an investigative reporter in Washington, D.C. who writes for several national publications.
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