The Republican Platform: An Orphaned Renewable Energy Policy
This is part of a series of short posts in which RFF scholars will analyze the environmental plank of the Republican and Democratic Party platforms. This week we’re looking at the Republican platform. Watch next week for a similar series of posts looking at the Democratic platform’s environmental agenda. As with all posts on Common Resources, this and other posts in this series are the opinions of the authors alone, not Resources for the Future.
The Republican Platform explicitly advocates expansion of renewable energy – but led by the private sector, not government:
We encourage the cost-effective development of renewable energy, but the taxpayers should not serve as venture capitalists for risky endeavors. It is important to create a pathway toward a market-based approach for renewable energy sources and to aggressively develop alternative sources for electricity generation such as wind, hydro, solar, biomass, geothermal, and tidal energy.
As far as it goes, the platform’s position has a lot going for it. It’s also not surprising – renewable energy is broadly popular. But there’s not much meat on the bones. And once you scratch the surface, it shows frustrating inconsistencies about the platforms’ broader environmental agenda.
It’s hard to oppose the platform’s basic thrust: it would be great if the U.S. could greatly increase the share of renewable generation cost-effectively, without taxpayers having to take risks to do so. The platform’s agnosticism toward renewable technologies is also good – it is very hard to “pick winners” and know which will be cost-effective.
Republicans are also in good company when they implicitly criticize the investment subsidies that have traditionally been the core of government support for renewable energy. Many economists believe these are not a cost-effective way to boost renewables. But this doesn’t mean there isn’t a strong case for government support for renewables research, development, and deployment. Investment subsidies may not be the best policy option, but there are others, such as renewable portfolio standards and feebates, that can mobilize private investment at a lower public cost (see this primer on these policies by Josh Linn and me for more).
Relying entirely on the private sector for renewable development also ignores two important economic insights. First, private firms can’t capture all the benefits of their innovations. For example, basic research breakthroughs may not be patentable. Of course, this is true in almost every industry. But the second insight about renewables is that they benefit not just the renewable industry, or even renewable energy consumers, but everyone - they are a public good. Both of these are classic examples of market failure. We should expect that the free market will supply less renewable energy investment than optimal. This is the core rationale for government support. Republicans are almost certainly correct that current government programs supporting renewables are far from ideal. But they are wrong to universally oppose such support.
It’s easy to blame free-market absolutism for this view. But I think that’s only part of the story. I suspect that the platform’s authors aren’t actually convinced that renewables are a public good at all. There are essentially two arguments for replacing fossil fuels with renewables. First, renewables are the ultimate energy independence strategy: there’s no world market price of sunlight, and no one can cut off your access to the wind. Second, and I think more importantly, renewables are (biomass possibly aside) pollution-free. Reducing the morbidity and mortality associated with fossil fuel emissions and reducing climate change risks are huge benefits for everyone.
But the Republican platform does not mention these benefits at all. It is certainly motivated by energy independence, but its solution is to ramp up domestic fossil fuel production and use (which, as Alan writes, is unlikely to lead to meaningful independence). Meanwhile the platform does almost nothing to acknowledge the well-documented negative effects of fossil fuels. Its claim that coal is a “low-cost” energy source can only be true if, as Alan points out, one assumes away the health externalities of coal. And as Ray notes, the platform brings up climate change only to criticize policies to address it.
One is forced to conclude that either the platform’s authors don’t believe these threats are real, or that they are cynically downplaying them to avoid tough questions about their preferred energy policy. Neither is a responsible position. (A third possibility is that the platform authors do think the threats are real, but that they’re addressed adequately by existing regulation – but the platform’s criticism of the current EPA’s climate rules and characterization of regulation as a “war on coal”, and its failure to offer any substitutes, makes that implausible.)
In any case, discussing climate change and other pollution problems would justify the platform’s support for renewables but threaten to undermine its aggressive fossil (and especially coal) strategy. Not doing so makes the renewable strategy a policy orphan, whatever merits it might have.