Last month, the Department of Energy launched a competition called “America’s Next Top Energy Innovator.” According to Energy Secretary Steve Chu, the effort will “unleash America’s innovation machine and win the global race for the clean energy jobs of the future.”
When America’s top energy official launches a program modeled on a reality-TV show — one imagines a dozen dweebish, never-married, pocket-protector-wearing inventors locked in a windowless laboratory on the Jersey Shore for 30 days — to promote yet another hackneyed political phrase, you know something has gone awry. That’s the case with “clean energy,” a phrase that has definitely, to use another pop-culture reference, “jumped the shark.” (For those of you who don’t snap to the latter phrase, it refers to an idea, show, or person that has devolved into absurdity.)
The Democrats are in desperate need of new ideas, absurd or not, on the energy front. Their initial hopes for a cap-and-trade scheme died in 2009 without ever reaching a vote by the full Senate. Democrats then attempted to use the EPA to impose by regulatory fiat what Congress had been unable to legislate; a bill just passed by the House is attempting to put a stop to that. Carbon taxes, along with an increase in the federal gasoline tax, are a political no-man’s-land. Meanwhile, the renewable darlings of the Green Left — solar and wind power — are being strangled by market forces. A flood of low-cost natural gas — itself the result of remarkable innovations in the drilling sector — has made the already-lousy economics of solar and wind even worse.
Enter “clean energy,” a weighty-sounding phrase that, like its bastard predecessors — “energy independence” and “we are addicted to oil” — is designed to charm the widest possible audience. The appeal is obvious. Who, after all, could possibly favor “dirty” energy?
This appeal helps explain why, during his March 30 speech on energy policy at Georgetown University, President Obama used that trope a dozen times. He declared that a federal mandate on clean energy would “help drive private investment” and create “an untold number of new jobs.” And in the president’s “Blueprint for a Secure Energy Future” — which was released on the day of his Georgetown speech — the phrase appears over 100 times.
Obama’s latest speeches build on the theme he introduced during his State of the Union address in January, declaring that 80 percent of America’s electricity should be coming from clean sources by 2035. His employees at the Department of Energy are eagerly promoting the idea. The National Renewable Energy Laboratory has created the Clean Energy Alliance, which provides “business and financial services tailored to the needs of the clean energy community.” The alliance has signed up a dozen “business incubators” around the country.
Set aside for the moment arguments about incubators, investment, and jobs. Instead, let’s pose the obvious question: What, exactly, does clean energy mean?
Ah, now, there’s the rub. In January, Obama defined clean energy as wind, solar, nuclear, natural gas, and “clean coal” (whatever that is). Under this definition, oil, which provides more primary energy (nearly 40 percent) to the U.S. economy than any other source, is apparently our only “dirty” fuel.
On March 21, the Senate Energy Committee released a “white paper” that tried to define clean energy. And that report is a quintessential example of the posturing that routinely trumps substantive energy policy on Capitol Hill. Among the 57 questions the paper asked is: Should the definition of clean energy account “only for the greenhouse gas emissions of electric generation,” or should other environmental issues like spent nuclear fuel and land-use changes caused by solar and wind projects also be included? And then there’s the question of how a federal mandate on clean energy would “contribute to the overall climate change policy” of the United States.
In the opening lines of his speech at Georgetown, the president condemned other politicians for relying on “slogans and gimmicks” on energy policy. Alas, “clean energy” is merely the latest example of America’s Next Top Vapid Energy Slogan.
— Robert Bryce is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute. His latest book, Power Hungry: The Myths of “Green” Energy and the Real Fuels of the Future, is now out in paperback.