Set some standards.
The failure of cap-and-trade has made some people skittish about mandates, but it’s possible that cap-and-trade was just too big and too far-reaching to implement today. That doesn’t mean it’s impossible to pass other laws with similar goals, or enact regulations that address clear concerns about health and safety.
A good example is renewable portfolio standards, which have now been established in about two-thirds of states. At the conference in Austin, former Colorado Governor Bill Ritter said that these were the most important of the 50-some clean energy bills he signed—in 2007, he approved legislation requiring large utilities to get 20 percent of their power from renewable sources by 2020 (up from a 10 percent standard set in 2015), and in 2010 he upped it again, to 30 percent. These standards require no direct spending by the state, but they do help develop the market, because clean energy companies can see that someone will buy what they’re selling.
Standards can also be used to develop the demand for clean energy by driving up the costs of the dirty kind. The EPA is planning to finalize new mercury standards next month, despite the fact that half of the states want the federal government to tell the agency to back off. If the standards go through, it will be a serious blow to the coal industry, which would need to make expensive investments in clean-up technology. Sufficiently expensive, perhaps, that other sources of energy become the relatively affordable options. Another development afoot in San Antonio: this summer CPS announced plans to shutter a major coal-fired plant by 2018, rather than spending $500 million on the new scrubber that would help it meet the EPA’s standards. It plans to make up much of the difference with solar and natural gas.
That points to an interesting aspect of the markets-focused approach: Corporations are relatively predictable. Their goal is to make money, as much as they can and indefinitely, and they generally respond to clear opportunities in predictable ways. The idea of developing the markets is a little bit weedy; most of these strategies are decentralized or indirect ways to accomplish what the federal government has struggled to achieve: Cap-and-trade would have developed the market pretty fast, too. But the more targeted interventions should elicit broader support, and at this point, environmentalists should try not to make the perfect the enemy of the good. If the market for clean power gets a firm footing, the green guys will be able to afford lobbyists, too.
Photo via (cc) Flickr user akeg