Originally published on the ECOreport.
37 years ago, the United States was poised on the edge of an energy revolution. The interdepartmental plan that Dr. Allan Hoffman presented President Jimmy Carter outlined how the nation could derive 20% of its power from renewables (principally wind & solar) by the year 2000. What could have happened, if Carter’s successors had pressed forward, is another of the great “ifs” of history. Hoffman answers another question in his book The U.S. Government & Renewable Energy: how America adopts energy policies.
How America Adopts Energy Policies
America’s failure can be explained in terms of presidents. None of the Republicans, from Reagan to Bush Jr, believed in renewable energy (see Allan R. Hoffman’s The U.S. Government & Renewable Energy, Pan Sanford Series on Renewable Energy, pages 44 and 101). Though many expected to see an increase in the budgets for renewable energy research and development under Bill Clinton, a Democrat, he had “lots of other fish to fry after 12 years of Republican control of the White House.”
“My hopes were more on actions related to energy in a second Clinton term. Of course my hopes were dashed when the President tried to put a price on carbon by raising gasoline prices by five cents a gallon and ran into a political firestorm. Unfortunately, he never tried again. Vice President Gore was also responsible for a serious setback when he insisted that all programs aimed at reducing global warming be so labelled in the FY1996 budget request, which many of us argued against strongly. Our fear was that with the Republicans winning both the House and Senate in the 1994 mid-term Congressional election (the so called Gingrich Revolution), such a guide would make it easy for Republicans to cut clean energy budgets. However we were unsuccessful in the face of the Vice President’s insistence and the Republicans subsequently used the ‘guide,’ to cut the requested OUT Renewable Energy budget by 25%. This had serious consequences for the NREL, which at the time received 60% of its operating funds from the budget, and the NREL was forced to lay off 200 of its 800 staff. It was a devastating time for renewables, about which I still carry strong feelings,” writes Hoffman (p. 48–49).
By the time of Barack Obama’s election, in 2008, Hoffman noted that he was beginning his “eighth decade of life” and considering retirement. However, America finally had “a President who really seemed to ‘get it’ in a meaningful way.”
Under Five U.S. Presidents
Hoffman’s 134 page The U.S. Government & Renewable Energy contains a distillation of the events he witnessed while serving under five U.S. Presidents (Carter, Bush Sr, Clinton, Bush Jr, & Obama).
Much of what he writes does not have anything to do with politics. He explains how the various renewable energy sources work and the challenges that needed to be overcome before they could be adopted. Some of the personal anecdotes, like climbing a wind turbine “though I have a serious fear of heights,” are delightful.
However, the real value of this book is the insider’s perspective it gives on how America has adopted energy policies.
Need For A Clear U.S. Energy Policy
Drawing from his decades of experience, Hoffman calls for the adoption of a clear U.S. energy policy that transcends political ideologies:
“Energy policy is a complicated and controversial field, reflecting many different national, global and vested interests. Bringing renewables fully into the energy mainstream, which is only now beginning, will take time as history teaches, and the needs of developing and developed nations (e.g., in transportation need to be addressed during the period in which the transition takes place. The critical need is to move through this transition as quickly as possible. Without clear national energy policies that recognize the need to move away from a fossil fuel-based energy system, and to a low carbon clean energy system as quickly as possible, this inevitable transition will be stretched out unnecessarily, with adverse environmental, job-creation, and other economic and national security impacts. It is also true that the revenue generated by putting a price on carbon can be used to reduce social inequalities introduced by such a tax, lower other taxes, and enable investments consistent with long-term national needs. In the United States, it also provides a means for cooperation between Republicans and Democrats, something we have not seen for decades. It is now more than time for U.S. leaders to take this critical step.” (Hoffman, p. 134)
Photo Credits: The White House during Barack Obama’s presidency by www.GlynLowe.com via Flickr (CC BY SA, 2.0 License); Cover of Allan R. Hoffman book, THE U.S. GOVERNMENT & RENEWABLE ENERGY; President Jimmy Carter at his desk in the Oval Office courtesy Children’s Bureau photostream via Flickr (CC BY SA, 2.0 License)