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Another year, another wringing of the hands over tax credits and incentives for clean technology.

Lobbyists and vendors in the U.S. are once again singing the blues, calling for continued and expanding government investments in clean technology. At the same time, political challengers continue their Solyndra hootenanny, raking the current administration for how it spent hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars.

One can’t help but wonder whether it’s time for a different tune when it comes to government involvement in cleantech.

Perhaps conversations about policy support should be less about giving more taxpayer money to prop up the space, and more about elected officials setting long term market stability and enabling the private sector to deploy capital to assume risk in cleantech. 

Why? First, some background…

Down with incentives
Every time U.S. tax credits for renewable energy development come up for renewal, the cleantech sector cringes at having to once again “play chicken” with whichever administration is incumbent at the time.

The U.S. Production Tax Credit (PTC), which provides a 2.2-cent per kilowatt-hour benefit for the first ten years of a renewable energy facility's operation, was born in 1992. But it’s had a hardscrabble life, clinging to life support after seven one and two-year extensions bestowed alternately by Republican and Democratic Congresses. Neither major American party has been willing to show long term incentive support for renewable energy.

The PTC for incremental hydro, wave and tidal energy, geothermal, MSW, and bioenergy was extended until the end of 2013. But the production tax credit for wind expires at the end of 2012. And that’s got wind lobby groups girding up. In a recent statement, American Wind Energy Association (AWEA) CEO Denise Bode cited a study suggesting Congressional inaction on the PTC “will kill 37,000 American jobs, shutter plants and cancel billions of dollars in private investment.” The same study suggested extending the wind PTC could allow the industry to grow to 100,000 jobs in just four years. Expect this battle to simmer all summer.

The unpredictability around cleantech incentives is taking its toll. “The U.S. is hitting a brick wall with the cessation of benefits,” remarked John Carson, CEO of Alterra Power, on the subject at a recent cleantech investment conference I co-chaired in Toronto. He wasn’t happy, and do you blame him? Nobody likes living hand to mouth. But that’s what happens when you rely on credits and incentives like the PTC or its loved and loathed counterpart in the U.S., the Investment Tax Credit (ITC).

And then there are the cleantech subsidies provided by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 (ARRA), which are now winding down.

If it feels that clean technology vendors and lobbyists are spending an undue amount of energy and resources chasing such subsidies worldwide, they likely are.

Up with mandates and standards
Rather than funding and administering subsidies to help the clean and green tech sectors find their footing, a case could be made that governments should focus on passing aggressive policy mandates, standards and codes.

Instead of using taxpayer money to make technology bets, regional and national governments could focus on passing laws, including broad brush stroke ones like the renewable portfolio standards in the U.S. that mandate a certain percentage of power from renewable sources by certain dates, and then step back and let the private sector figure out how to deliver. Or mandate change more granularly—for example, that coal power plants need to meet certain efficiency or emissions standards by certain dates, and, again, let the private sector figure out how. (Ironically, if there were more public support to actually clean up coal power instead of simply disingenuously parroting, beginning in 2008, that “there’s no such thing as clean coal,” throwing up our hands because environmental ads told us that “clean coal doesn’t exist today”—and that translated into political will and a mandate—cleaner coal power could exist today. Yes, there’d be a penalty on the nameplate capacity of plants’ output, but there’d also be billions saved in health care costs. But we digress.)

Taxpayers should take their politicians to task for trying to play venture capitalist, i.e. by investing their money in trying to pick winners (a la Solyndra) in complicated markets. Professional venture capitalists themselves, who focus on their game full-time, barely pick one winner in 10 investments.

Drawbacks of incentives
How could government grants, loans, tax credits and other subsidies possibly be bad in cleantech? Free money is good, right? Here’s a list of drawbacks to these incentives, some of them not as obvious as others:

  • They can go away and cause market disruption – to wit, the points earlier in this article.
  • The existence of loans and grants silences critics – Few speak out against pots of free money, because they might want or need to dip into them in the future.
  • Incentives favor only those willing to apply for them – and therefore are often missed by companies working on disruptive, fast-moving tech, or who are focused on taking care of customers’ needs.
  • Criteria are often too narrowly defined – Criteria for incentives often favor certain technology (solar photovoltaic over other solar, or ethanol over other biofuels), and as a result, lock out other legitimate but different approaches.
  • Picking winners means designating losers – Recipients of government grants or loan guarantees get capital and an associated halo of being an anointed company. Those that don’t are comparatively disadvantaged.
  • Not the best track record – Incentives go to companies best staffed to apply for and lobby for them. And those aren’t necessarily the companies that could use the capital the most effectively, e.g. to compete in world markets, or create the most jobs.

What governments could and should be doing
In the cleantech research and consulting we do worldwide at Kachan & Co., we’ve come to believe that governments are best focused on activities to create large and sustained markets for clean technology products and services.

Doing so gives assurance to private investors that there will be continued demand for their investments—one of the most important prerequisites to get venture capital, limited partners and other institutional investors to write large checks.

Given that objective, governments should, in our opinion, pursue:

  • Setting mandates and standards – e.g. the amount of power generated from renewable sources, new targets for fuel efficiency, green building or other dimensions.
  • Improving codes and other regulations – making building codes more stringent could drive energy efficiency, green building and smart grid investment.
  • Building the talent pool
  • Stabilizing the economy
  • Fostering political stability
  • Commitment to infrastructure projects – including water, transportation and grid.
  • Building showcase projects – regions wanting to foster local cleantech can do as Abu Dhabi has done with its Masdar initiative, as Saudi Arabia is now doing with solar, or as China has done with hundreds of green development zones; in doing so, all three of these countries have sent strong signals to large corporations and investors that they view clean technology as strategic.
  • Rolling back so-called perverse government subsidy support today of the fossil fuel industry, including direct and indirect subsidies.

Cities as test beds of policy innovation
Interestingly, cities are emerging as petri dishes of progressive cleantech policy, and are increasingly where such innovation is taking place.

For instance, Barcelona has established that large companies need to create as much as 30% of their power from solar thermal technologies. The city of Berkeley, California pioneered what is now known as Property Assessed Clean Energy (PACE) financing, wherein property owners are able to pay for energy efficiency and renewable energy improvements on their property taxes. This month, Phoenix, Arizona introduced what it calls the largest city-sponsored residential solar financing program in the U.S. And New York City is taking the lead in residential demand response by trialing a program to curtail the consumption of 10,000 room air conditioners at times of high demand.

Given the world’s current financial malaise, and especially in light the Occupy momentum globally, I’m surprised more folks aren’t questioning how their governments spend their money in cleantech. Because, as described above, there are other arguably more effective ways elected officials can help usher in a cleaner, greener future than throwing around billions in incentives.

After all, how much fun would a pristine planet be if we’re all destitute because governments have crumbled under crushing debt?

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