Too much of alternative energy is wishful thinking. No current choice is economically viable so the common reasoning is to pick one and argue it will get better if we support it wholeheartedly, and by implication reject the other alternatives. This makes for a polarized debate that goes nowhere.
Currently the US spends about $12B/y on green energy. With current politics its hard to see this amount growing. This amount of subsidy will support wind, solar and bio at slow growth rates if they get cheaper. This is the acceptable amount of subsidy that balances the current political realities. Realistically the subsidy level is more likely to fall, with the wind PTC on a yearly cliff and the solar ITC expiring in 2016.
Energy is too big a part of the economy with too many powerful entrenched interests for government to afford the subsidies or fight the battles necessary for any meaningful impact based on currently available technologies.
Current economic and political realities make it clear that economically viable clean energy that does not need subsidy is the only way to grow clean energy.
My point is not that we should stop supporting current non fossil fuel alternatives. What we do need to do is to invest intelligently in new non fossil technologies that might have the potential to succeed. While the debate centers on in fighting between the current alternatives, and a search for more taxes and subsidies to prop them up, a real debate on how to grow the pool of options cannot start. The air has been pulled from the room.
A new approach to fund power plant development (rather than basic research) is needed. A model I like is SPACEX. This is essentially a government funded system level startup that is succeeding. Rather than the cost plus model of government contractors, this was essentially funded with fixed priced contracts for tangible results. Unfortunately the DOE has not learned from NASA's experience, and even if it had, entrenched fossil fuel interests ensure that Congress will block any attempts at reform.
A stepped funding model that offered initially small funding for tangible results, with more funding as viability is demonstrated would allow a range of new ideas to be tested cheaply. There are currently a handful of fusion energy and advanced sustainable safe nuclear companies that could benefit from investments in the $10M/y to $100M/y range. There are some crazy wind and solar alternatives that might succeed. Were they to demonstrate they were on a path to viability, larger funding for the few that make it would be forthcoming. A yearly budget of $10B could fund dozens of new system level energy companies. The key would be to avoid long term subsidies for boondoggles. The $10B/y is just a swag. Less could easily accomplish a lot, and it all does not have to come from the US.
By Edmund Kelly