Monday, 9 May 2011

Some sobriety about the proposed Clean Energy Deployment Administration

Outgoing U.S. Senator Jeff Bingaman (D-NM) is proposing a "Clean Energy Deployment Administration." Senator has historically worked well across the aisle, and he has in this case enlisted the support of Senator Lisa Murkowski (R-AK), who has nevertheless insisted that funding ($10 billion upfront) be figured out. This is not a bad condition to attach to her support.

In fact, I would go further and wonder if this CEDA is really such a good idea after all. There is a saying that goes something like "government is bad at picking winners, and losers are good at picking governments." We have this temptation, especially when we have a huge problem, to think that government, with its huge scale, is best positioned to somehow "solve" it. And what has that predisposition gotten us? Well, there was George W. Bush's hydrogen fuel cell initiative, which never approached the promised $1.2 billion in funding because it was eventually recognized as one of the less promising technologies after all. But apart from the suspicion that Bush's hydrogen fuel cell initiative, championed by then-Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham, was really about deflecting criticism on climate change and about helping win the key electoral battleground state of Michigan, the fuel cell initiative is a classic case of losers picking a good government. In terms of its contribution to society minus the costs it has imposed, General Motors is really one of the most abject losers in the history of human industry.

So would a CEDA provide more of this? I suspect it would. Senator Bingaman is a very intelligent and upright individual, but seems a bit vulnerable to snake oil sales. His comment in 2009, when he was chair of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, "I believe we could go to E-12, or E-14 or E-16 without causing any great problems with vehicle operation," is indicative of a misplaced confidence in the prospects of ethanol, if only government would save it. Senator Bingaman would likely not have anything to do with the operation of CEDA, if it formed, but this is not a good face to put on CEDA. And Congress's current proclivities to tinker and micro-manage agency operations does not bode well for the prospects of an indepedant and depoliticized CEDA.

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