In the absence of a global framework for regulating emissions, the future of the planet largely rests on choices by private firms and investors regarding which technologies to pursue and commercialize.

Despite the mounting evidence of severe climate change, there is a funding crisis for potential solutions. The Department of Energy released data at the beginning of November showing that global emissions of CO2 rose 6% in 2010, despite the ongoing economic recession. This trajectory is higher than the worst case projections from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in it’s 2007 Fourth Assessement Report. The impacts are already being felt. A new IPCC report concludes that climate change is causing more extreme weather, especially heat waves, heavy precipitation, and coastal flooding (though the super-cautious IPCC hedged on hurricanes).

beaconpowerstephentown_270x272Yet November also witnessed setbacks for two key clean energy technologies. Beacon Power, a Boston-area developer of flywheel energy storage and power management systems for the grid, filed for bankruptcy the same week that the DoE released the grim emissions data. Just a few days later, the FutureGen 2.0 project, the leading US effort to develop commercial scale Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) technology, suffered a major setback when the Midwestern power company Ameren announced that it could not provide an old power plant for the project due to financial difficulties.

One important lesson is that public policy must be based on a clear understanding of the challenges facing the clean energy sector and the impact of regulation and programs on investment decisions and corporate business models. In the absence of a global framework for regulating emissions, the future of the planet largely rests on choices by private firms and investors regarding which technologies to pursue and commercialize. The clean energy sector, however, faces a host of risks that make investors wary. The risk is not that climate change is going away as a long-term driver; the problem is that there are large market uncertainties regarding the future of regulation and subsidies, which technologies will emerge as large-scale, low-cost, low-carbon alternatives, how consumers will respond, and how competitors will react.

Despite the woeful underfunding of clean energy research in the US, there is still a plethora of exciting technologies being developed in the laboratories of universities, government centers, and the private sector. For more mature technologies, large subsidies are flowing to commercial installations of solar and wind, perhaps too large, according to a critical New York Times article last week. While these subsidies are reducing costs by accelerating the technologies down the learning and scale curves, they tend to reinforce the dominance of early, low-cost “winners” in the marketplace, and provide little help for less mature but promising emerging technologies, such as Solyndra’s CIGS thin film glass tubes. As a result, these subsidies also tend to suck in a lot of low-cost Chinese imports rather than stimulate US production or research.

A structural problem, as Daniel Goldman wrote in an earlier Climate Inc. post, is the proverbial “valley of death” between lab research and commercial production, where “neither government, venture capital firms nor capital markets have tended to bear the risks associated with providing equity capital, which can amount to hundreds of millions of dollars, for initial deployment of capital intensive new clean energy technologies at commercial scale – described here as “first project commercialization.”  The US venture capital model evolved primarily to support the emergence of the software industry, which has relatively low capital intensity, but there is not currently an adequate private (or public) sector solution for clean energy. It’s far too early to know whether, for example, flywheel technology is better than batteries or compressed gas for power storage – and maybe there is a role for each of them, to meet different needs in different locations. But a market-based system that relies on private sector funding is failing us if it cuts off development of promising technologies before they even reach commercial scale testing.

Beacon Power has not yet closed its doors, and is trying to continue operating under bankruptcy. Since the summer, it has been testing a 20-megawatt flywheel plant in Stephentown, N.Y., which can absorb and supply power from the grid very rapidly, and is therefore valuable in frequency regulation. Another installation is planned for Pennsylvania. The more intermittent wind and solar that is connected to the grid, the greater the need for short-term storage solutions. Flywheels are able to deal with rapid fluctuations and match supply and demand more effectively and reliably than batteries, such as those from A123, or gas-fired plants (while reducing emissions from rapid cycling of gas plants). A few of the the 200 flywheels in Stephentown have experienced problems, but the system has performed well overall.

Until recently, Beacon Power has not been able to monetize the full advantages of flywheel storage. It was only on October 20th that the Federal Regulatory Energy Commission (FERC) approved a change in regulations that makes grid operators pay, not just for the amount of power in reserve, but also for its effectiveness in grid stabilization. According to Bloomberg, this could double Beacon Power’s revenue and make it easier to find financing. But the ruling, which has been in the works since February, was too late to keep Beacon solvent. If we are to rely on price and market mechanisms, we need to build them to serve the planet.

The lack of a clear regulatory framework has also hurt offshore wind power in the US. Even now that the 450 MW Cape Wind project is most likely moving ahead, the damage from more than a decade of delays and uncertainty, resulting in millions of dollars in costs and legal fees, have probably dampened investors’ enthusiasm. The latest delay stems from a court ruling that the FAA needs to take another look at aviation hazards. With further financing still required for the $2.6 billion project and the company still negotiating to sell half the power output, the future is not yet secure. Meanwhile, the European Wind Energy Association expects annual investments in the European offshore wind industry to triple to reach 10 billion Euros by 2020.

Given the urgency of the situation, public policy needs to shape the market context in order to steer private investment decisions. We are not heading in the right direction, however. In the short term, the ongoing recession appears to be diverting attention from the climate issue and draining government, business, and consumers of resources. A new Ernst and Young report estimates that the recession could lead governments to cut spending on climate change by tens of billions of dollars. It’s more important than ever to focus government resources, and commercialization of carbon-reducing technologies is a critical area. But in addition to financial support, the problems facing Beacon Power, FutureGen and Cape Wind highlight the importance of reducing regulatory uncertainty.