Obama’s investment horizon for clean energy

January 28, 2009

John Kemp Great Debate— John Kemp is a Reuters columnist. The opinions expressed are his own —

Like a Byzantine emperor, a U.S. president’s every public move is scripted to send signals about his priorities to Congress, the electorate, business, and the vast federal bureaucracy that will actually be responsible for formulating and implementing decisions in his name.

Presidential politics is a theatrical performance in which the president takes a small number of important decisions personally, but is responsible for setting the tone and direction for many smaller ones that will never reach his desk. If he can reach out to voters and businesses he can also reshape national priorities.

So President Barack Obama’s high-profile speech on energy independence this week, and public signing ceremony for presidential directives on fuel economy and climate issues, was meant to provide a strong signal of his commitment to an ambitious and costly energy agenda, despite the mounting economic crisis and other pressures on both the motor manufacturing industry and the federal budget.

The speech was intended to reassure progressive supporters that crisis management will not distract the administration from pursuing longer-term transformational changes in energy policy. It was probably also designed to provide an early payoff to liberal voters, even as the president seems set to disappoint them in other areas.

But the president’s most important audience was the business community. By emphasizing the eventual goal of energy independence, however vague some of the specifics, Obama’s speech was meant to create a “planning horizon” for corporations and investors.

The intention is to guide investment spending towards fuel-efficient technologies and renewable sources of energy, sustaining expenditure on research, development and commercialization despite the slump in oil prices and global slowdown.

In effect, the administration is trying to delink spending on alternative energy and fuel-efficient technologies from the business cycle and changes in oil prices.

By convincing investors it is serious about shifting the pattern of energy production and consumption, and guaranteeing a market for these technologies in the longer term, the administration wants to persuade investors and firms to “look through” short-term cyclical weakness in oil prices.


The interaction between the financial crisis and climate and energy policies is complex. On the positive side, prolonged worldwide recession is cutting total energy consumption for the first time since the 1970s and reducing associated emissions of greenhouse gases (GHGs). The global slump will almost certainly reduce emissions in both 2009 and 2010 relative to 2007.

More important is the longer term impact. If the crisis, and the unsustainable accumulation of debt and inflationary pressure which preceded it, convince policymakers recent growth rates were unsustainable, and force them to revise down future global growth estimates, the result would be a permanent shift to a lower trajectory for both growth and emissions.

By mid-century, the world economy would be smaller than in previous projections, and fewer people would have been lifted out of poverty, but GHG emissions would also be lower.

So one effect of the crisis is that it may have bought policymakers an extra five or even ten years to roll out new technologies and programs to limit emissions and stabilize atmospheric concentrations of GHGs.

On the negative side, the cyclical drop in oil prices is blunting commercial incentives to develop alternative energy sources and efficient technologies, and risks delaying their adoption.
First-generation biofuels such as corn-starch ethanol need oil prices of $70 to be commercially competitive; more advanced biofuels such as cellulosic ethanol need even higher ones. In fact, all forms of alternative energy cost more than fossil sources when oil prices are at low to moderate levels ($30-60 per barrel).

Similarly, fuel-efficient technologies remain more expensive than conventional alternatives, especially in terms of upfront costs, and are unlikely to be adopted unless and until oil prices rise again. The decline in oil prices is stalling the switchover.

At the same time, the collapse in energy prices has undermined investors’ enthusiasm for start-up companies and experimental projects that aim to bring new sources and efficient technologies to market. Most of these technologies remain unproven and the risk of failure is high, so they depend heavily on venture capital funding and high-risk project financing from the banks.

Both markets are now closed. With oil prices likely to remain depressed for some time, the risk of technological failure is now compounded by an unfavorable commercial environment.

Venture interest is falling. Several conventional oil companies that were sponsoring alternative projects such as wind farms and advanced ethanol plants have scaled back their involvement.

Independent venture funds remain wary since the market for initial public offerings (IPOs), which they rely on to exit investments in alternative energy companies and elsewhere, remains closed; it is not clear when it will re-open and on what terms.

Even for promising technologies where the risk of technical failure is relatively small, the crisis has dried up sources of project finance. Bluefire Ethanol Inc warned investors last month it had been forced to postpone construction of a cellulosic ethanol plant because of problems with costs, permits and financing. Suncor has delayed expansion of a conventional corn-starch plant by more than a year to save costs.


The Obama administration’s task is to convince investors energy will be much more expensive in future (making alternative sources and efficient technologies competitive) and that for any level of energy prices it is prepared to prioritize non-fossil sources (using taxes, fees and subsidies if necessary).

In that sense, decisions announced earlier this week were minor. The president showcased loan guarantees for new power transmission lines; directed the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration to publish fuel economy standards for the 2011 model year; and instructed the Environmental Protection Agency to review its earlier decision to oppose attempts by the state of California to regulate carbon dioxide emissions.

The president did not make a final decision about fuel economy, or whether California and other states will be allowed to pre-empt federal regulation of greenhouse gases by introducing their own rules. He also shied away from controversial topics such as raising gasoline taxes or introducing a cap-and-trade program to curb carbon emissions and support other technologies.

The administration clearly intends to keep its options open and avoid opening up a controversial debate before it is ready and when the president is heavily engaged in other areas.

In the long term, however, the administration will have to contemplate all these things if it wants to raise fossil energy prices, boost alternative sources of supply and encourage conservation.
The importance of this week’s announcements therefore lay in their symbolism.

By reaffirming the president’s commitment to a transformative agenda, even in broad terms, they give greater certainty to senior executives at the automakers that will need to approve costly investments in fuel efficient vehicles that the federal government will guarantee them a market.

By indicating the administration is serious about pursuing transformative change, they also give investors greater confidence about backing long-term alternative fuel projects with highly speculative payoffs.

Lastly, by offering federal loan guarantees and concessional finance for upgrading the power grid, Obama indicated the federal government may have a role to play in helping bridge the financing gap between promising early stage technologies and full commercial adoption, by shouldering some of the development risk.

If the president’s public actions are important mainly for their choreography, Obama has sought to give clear commercial incentives for investors to start allocating capital to alternative energy and efficient technologies again.


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The president did not make a final decision about fuel economy, or whether California and other states will be allowed to pre-empt federal regulation of greenhouse gases by introducing their own rules. He also shied away from controversial topics such as raising gasoline taxes or introducing a cap-and-trade program to curb carbon emissions and support other technologies.

This is why I am so skeptical about this while green thing. Without some sort of a fuel tax, this is just a sheer wasting of funds and pushing automakers into bankruptcy. Hardening EE standards will lead to more expensive cars, hybrids are not cheap at all, while gas remains cheap and the demand for cars is collapsing. Last month SUVs were reported to be outselling regular cars again. Unless the price of gas is raised people will avoid buying green cars, continue to drive the already existing SUVs and buy used ones. Never mind the rebound effect that such policies will inevitably create – as the driving per mile becomes cheaper, people will simply drive more. There is something that Obama and Hugo Chavez share in common, both are hopeless populists who believe they can create a new society by throwing around presidential decrees.

Posted by Nobody | Report as abusive

I hope things will be planned and not backed into. We need more power transmission lines, but we need the right ones. It often causes anguish to the people whose property is taken, and that shouldn’t be wasted. The system should also be designed from Day 1 to carry the wind and solar power we’ll eventually use. As far as batteries and cars, can electrochemical batteries compete over the life of a vehicle? I’ve had so much bad luck with them. We shouldn’t pile into electrochemical batteries if we can expect purely capacitive technology to be available soon. We shouldn’t ask the automakers to waste money. We need vision, not dog biscuits for constituencies.

Posted by Pete Cann | Report as abusive

Hey John, juicy stuff. But there’s a “hidden” cost factor that you are not considering in your comparison of locally grown fuel sources with big oil: WAR.

The overall costs of maintaining “peace” in the middle east alter the ratio, and dramatically improve the cost-effectiveness of anything that makes us energy independent.

We haven’t had a president since Eisenhower who really set his sights on long-term economic benefit for the entire country. What was the cost of the interstate highway system?

Posted by Mike Clark | Report as abusive

Posted by Mike Clark
Hey John, juicy stuff. But there’s a “hidden” cost factor that you are not considering in your comparison of locally grown fuel sources with big oil: WAR

As long as the geopolitical costs of oil consumption are not billed into the actual price, there is no way they can be considered. And the only thing that can reverse this situation is again the fuel tax, or to be precise a tax swap that moves taxation burden from income, payroll and other taxes to some sort of a gas tax.

Posted by Nobody | Report as abusive

In other words, climate change legislation is coming. And I think that should be the larger point: reducing GHG emissions can bring business opportunities. I read John Kemp’s article after reading about some of the business opportunities here (http://www.environmentallawresource.com  /articles/climate-change/). Reading both articles provides a better perspective on the issue.

Posted by John Remlin | Report as abusive

What ever happened to that “can do” American spirit that made that country what it is?
What I mostly hear now is “It wont work, its too expensive, this is wrong, that is wrong”
My God, it sounds like you are all ready to give up before you start. At that rate you may as well lay down and die.
Quit feeling sorry for yourselves.

Posted by Ronin | Report as abusive

If we have to stimulate the economy why not do it in a way that pays financial and security dividends for generations to come. Get well on the way to getting off foreign oil. One security example, being in a position to shut down the flow of oil from Iran if they insist on building nukes. No need for a huge army, just shut off there income. Something Bush couldn’t even threaten because of foreign oil dependency…

Posted by Larry | Report as abusive