Why doesn't the US have a deeper market for alternative energy? What is the problem? Is it regulatory? Is it the technology itself? Is it us?
The panelists agreed on one thing: it isn't technology. The technology is there. The desire to innovate is there. What isn't there? Capital, regulatory freedom and acceptance from the public.
Steve Koonan of the US Department of Energy started by making the point that we need to figure out what problem it is that we're trying to solve. Are we trying to solve global warming or oil dependency? Are we trying to create jobs or maintain competitiveness? Each of the renewable energy sources present a solution to a different problem, so the discussion should not start with the answer (which energy solution is best), it should start with the question, what is our goal?
After we identify the problems, then the question of capital comes into play. The current energy ecosystem is massive and 5,000 entities have some interest in the current power grid. For alternative energy solutions to have a hope of entering the current power environment, they need to compete with conventional sources.
Bottom line, the price of solar needs to drop and distribution needs to widen. How do you affect price and distribution? An entity with deep pockets takes on the responsibility to manufacture and distribute the product in a cost-effective way. Does this mean that the current conventional energy companies will end up owning and be responsible for distributing these technologies? Probably.
Regulatory freedom is another arm of the discussion and here there was much disagreement on the panel. As Steven Mayfield from the San Diego Center for Algae said, "We all need and want some form of regulation. We need laws. But it's the uneven application of these regulations and laws that prevents the alternative energy solutions from gaining traction."
Steve Koonan brought the argument back to figuring out which problem we're trying to solve. He said that it wasn't so much the presence of onerous regulations that was causing a bottleneck in America's adoption of a universal alternative energy strategy, it's that our regulators are having too many parallel discussions and are not focused on the problems they're trying to solve.
Despite the problems in capital and sludge-like pace of regulatory acceptance, the most pressing problem in America's future with alternative energy seems to be public acceptance.
As Mayfield said, "We're not Apple and coming out with a new iPod, our products are electricity and diesel...When I pull up to the gas station, I don't wonder where my fuel came from, I want what's cheapest," and until the issue is framed in such a way that Americans care about where their fuel comes from, alternative energy will have a hard time competing.
Which do you think is the most significant factor in preventing America's widespread acceptance of alternative energy?
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