Too many people -- and way too many members of Congress -- can't seem to come to terms with this simple fact: no energy source or technology can succeed without a helping hand from Uncle Sam. That's why the big question, as Council on Foreign Relations energy expert Michael Levi so artfully put it, is: Will the federal government be involved in energy in "a smart way or a stupid way?"
A lot of people on the left think it's pretty stupid that the government spends billions in tax handouts and regulatory favors on an industry that is causing the climate to change and threatening the future of our planet.
Meanwhile, a lot of people on the right think it would be stupid for the government not to support the sector that quite literally powers the biggest, richest, most productive economy the world has ever known.
I get both arguments. But I have a different point of view. The thing that bothers me the most is that we are neglecting the nascent renewable energy industries that could power a new, carbon-neutral, industrial revolution in America.
Thirty years ago, we knew that vast quantities of oil and gas were buried in deep underground shale formations. We just didn't know how to get the fuel out of the ground. Now, thanks to decades of public and private research and investment, fracking has created millions of jobs and contributed to a reduction of our carbon footprint.
But there is even greater potential in renewable energy. The amount of energy that the sun shines on the earth in a single hour is more than enough to meet the world's yearly consumption demand. And enough wind blows across the surface of our planet to become the primary electricity source for the whole world. Together they represent the equivalent of a trillion Bakken shale formations waiting to be tapped.
Imagine: an energy boom like the one North Dakota is experiencing today, except across the entire nation and for the next half century. That's the potential. But unless our government smartens up on energy policy, the future of our planet and our profits are in serious doubt.
The challenge is harnessing renewable energy in large quantities, at a price consumers can afford, while finding a way to effectively store and efficiently distribute it. We're making significant progress in solving these hurdles. What's more, unlike fracking 30 years ago, solar and wind power technology isn't unproven. It works extremely well, and it's getting better and cheaper by the day.
In California, solar power today is no more expensive than electricity delivered from traditional coal-fired power plants. According to Navigant, an energy consultancy, unsubsidized solar power will be cost-competitive with conventional power plants by 2020 "in a significant portion of the world." And Bloomberg came out with a bold headline for homebuilders in 2013: Solar panels are the new granite countertops. Jim Petersen, the CEO of PetersenDean Inc., a major roofing and solar contractor, told Bloomberg he anticipates homebuilders will soon begin "just incorporating [solar] into the cost of the house like any other feature."
But for all the progress in scaling up the reach and bringing down the price, these renewables and others still face significant challenges.
To begin with, someone needs to invent a viable and affordable energy storage technology, because the sun isn't always shining and the wind isn't always blowing. We need cutting-edge materials research, because many renewable energy technologies -- lithium-ion batteries in particular -- rely on rare earth minerals that are in short supply and overwhelmingly produced in one country: China.
We need an electric grid that can accommodate more distributed and intermittent sources of power, and we need to find ways to transmit solar power from isolated deserts and wind power from blustery plains to distant metropolises.
But what we need more than anything is smart policymaking.
We need to level the playing field for renewables, and we need to recognize that our sustainable energy revolution won't happen overnight. It will be a multi-decade, generational process that will require significant, government-funded R&D, grants, subsidies, and favorable tax policies that stay on the books for decades and cost billions of dollars.
And we need to get on with it. Let's support the renewable energy industry today in order to save the planet and sustain America's economic powerhouse tomorrow.