After Sen. Gardner’s town hall, a new idea

This is the letter and article I sent to Colorado Senator Cory Gardner after his first town hall since being elected in 2016. I encourage you to reach out to your elected officials with a similar message: Invest in energy storage R&D! Perhaps if enough of us do this, it will happen.

What’s the Fastest Way to an Energy Miracle? First amp up R&D then fade in a carbon tax. By Frances Cairncross (Oct 2016) Anthropocene

Dear Senator Gardner,

Thank you for hosting the town hall meeting in Colorado Springs today. While my name did not get called to ask a question, I was appreciative you made an effort to allow as many citizens as possible ask questions in this face-to-face setting.

As you stated several times, there will be many topics where we disagree and some where we agree. Leaders are always faced with this challenge of finding unity despite differences of opinion and experience. The whole room at Pikes Peak Community College supported your bravery in calling racist hate for what it is, and for doing what, until recently, the citizens in Colorado had not seen you do, which was to push back against the President and the Administration for failing in their duty to uphold American (and regular human) values. Please continue to stand for common decency, civil rights, and a free press as the current Administration seems determined to undermine the fabric of communication that makes our democratic republic possible.

You asked your audience to listen, for although the majority of the crowd seemed to disagree with most of what you said, only after listening can meaningful conversation occur. (I agree, many in the room were incredibly rude and counterproductive, and listening is critical to communication.) I listened to your words, and I heard several instances where your information was inaccurate. Here’s a small example: the anecdote you mentioned about Charlie Gard from the UK as a mark against single-payer healthcare. While this family’s situation is tragic, it was not actually about any doctors denying care, but rather parents faced with false hopes (from extremely ideological folks in the US) that their terminally ill son might be cured and some legal battle within a court (not healthcare) system. I encourage you to check out the reporting done on this story and the subsequent media coverage by On the Media on July 27 (“Citizen Charlie Gard”, WNYC)

I am writing with the hope that you are earnest in believing that listening is worthwhile, and that you have an open mind about information that may not be in your immediate circle of like-minded friends and news services. When asked passionately by Colorado mother Amy Gray and the young girl about what you will do about climate change, you gave a lukewarm “all of the above” energy strategy and had the audacity to claim that hydraulic fracturing has been done safely in Colorado, despite those who died in a house explosion when a gas line was improperly secured and despite known increased risk of cancer for those living within 1 mile of a well.

While I realize you will never be the champion of our nation’s future, there are meaningful things you can do that would make a tremendous difference, especially coming from someone in your party: Invest in Research and Development for zero-carbon based energy systems. Oil, gas, and coal enjoy enormous privileges from the U.S. government, yet comparatively, all other energy sources are left with uncertain investment scenarios that make R&D companies risk-averse and short-sighted. We need to figure out how to store large amounts of energy efficiently for solar and wind to replace current energy demands, and as yet, there are not enough financial resources invested for storage technology to keep pace with our planetary and economic needs to make this transition.

Investment is something YOU CAN DO. You are on the committees for both energy and the budget. I’m sure you could win bipartisan support for heavy investment in research and development for energy storage, as even the most fact-resistant Congressmen could surely see the economic benefits of leading the world in this emerging market.

This idea is not my own — it came from someone much better informed on the economic viability of such an effort than me (see article below by Frances Cairncross). Please at least take the time to read this article and ask: What can you do to invest in America’s future? You can propose such investment! Investing in R&D heavily enough will not be easy, but perhaps it’s easier than imposing a carbon fee and dividend, and certainly it’s likely easier than parting ways with your oil & gas friends (e.g. sponsors). Rise to the challenges of the moment: invest in R&D for energy storage.

Thank you for your time and for listening.


Laura van der Pol

Article: What’s the Fastest Way to an Energy Miracle?

First amp up R&D then fade in a carbon tax

By Frances Cairncross

The world is playing a rigged casino game. “Every year that we inject more CO2 into the atmosphere, we spin the planetary roulette wheel … and the more we continue increasing the emissions that warm the planet, the more the odds are stacked against a favorable outcome.”

So what’s the smartest way to play such a game? Or, more to the point: Is there a way to speed up a massive leap from dirty to clean energy sources that would otherwise take many decades? Many economists have recommended a carbon tax … but a carbon tax alone might cut economic growth unless governments agreed to spend the revenue in ways that would offset that effect. It would be slow to affect the pace of industrial innovation, which is crucial if noncarbon technologies are to develop fast enough to oust the carbon sort. Besides, simply using taxation to raise the cost of carbon-based fuels might backfire if it happened in some countries but not in others: industry might switch from the taxed countries to the untaxed unless some way could be found to impose carbon-related tariffs on goods and services produced with untaxed carbon

But in addition to these difficulties, a carbon tax might work slowly. Because little has been done to limit emissions in the past, and because industries producing and using coal and oil have enjoyed various financial privileges, innovation in dirty technologies starts out with an advantage. As a result, a small amount invested in dirty technologies brings a more certain reward than a larger investment in clean technologies. How to offset this handicap? A team led by MIT’s Daron Acemoglu has recently argued that the best way to replace carbon-based energy with noncarbon fuels might be to start off with a high level of government subsidies for research and development of clean technologies. (1) Over the course of half a century, these subsidies would be gradually withdrawn and a carbon tax introduced at rates that would build to a crescendo over a century or so before declining. The boost to R&D would speed up the switch to clean energy without cutting economic growth, as a carbon tax alone might do.

Thus the carbon tax would become an effective way to bring about the transition to clean technology only after enough R&D had been done to shift the incentives for innovation. Eventually, the tax could be withdrawn completely, because by then we would have reached a stage where it no longer paid to invest in the dirty technologies anyway (just as, at the start of the exercise, it didn’t pay to invest in the clean technologies).

This neat combination could have a heavyweight backer. In a fascinating interview with The Atlantic last fall, Bill Gates pointed to the huge importance of technological change to make an impact on climate change — and the difficulty of turning invention into speedy and widespread adoption. Whereas a new digital gizmo can be on every smartphone in the world within a few months, new energy generation takes decades to install. A new carbon-free energy source that cost the same as the carbon-belching sort would be uncertain, not tried and tested. And Gates pointed out that R&D in energy is low compared with the billions pumped by government and private investors into medical and digital technologies. So energy R&D is key: “I would love to see a tripling, to $18 billion a year, from the US government to fund basic research alone,” said Gates, who argues that government spends efficiently on basic science. It also needs to place many different bets — for instance, on storage (the huge weakness of solar and wind power), and on carbon-free fertilizers, and on big and small ideas that may help.

But there are snags, as Dieter Helm, professor of energy policy at Oxford University, points out. Acemoglu and his colleagues are right: the solutions to climate change will have to be solved by new technologies — “and they are coming thick and fast,” he says. “It is better to spend money on R&D than on [subsidizing] things like windmills,” he says: wind power will never be a real solution until the huge problem of grid-wide power storage is cracked. And will subsidies deliver innovation? “Electric cars, mobiles, apps, smart grids, batteries, solar are all being driven by the market,” he argues. “Most government-sponsored successful R&D has come from the military in the US and to a lesser extent the UK, where the goal is clear.”

However, the MIT economists are on to something. Governments would certainly rather spend money on scientific research than raise taxes. The federal government has not raised its gasoline tax since 1993. How long might it take to push a carbon tax through Congress — let alone one that was guaranteed to rise each year for a century or more?


Dame Frances Cairncross is the former rector of Exeter College, Oxford University. Prior to her decade at Oxford, she was a journalist, spending 13 years at the Guardian as an economic columnist and 20 years at the Economist as a senior editor.

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