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Clarifying the Clean Energy Innovation v Deployment Debate

Recently there has been a resurgence of what is becoming a classic (see: tired) debate between very smart people about the tension between clean energy innovation and deployment.

This is a “debate” that has played out several times over, enough times now that I think there are a few things the clean energy community needs to acknowledge about it:

1. There is a difference between policy and communications.

2. There are disagreements about communications. However, conflating communications and policy allows disagreements about messaging to spill over into the policy discussion.

3. Ultimately, there is little functional difference between the policies actually advocated by these two “camps.”

4. In letting this happen, the community misses an opportunity to coalesce around items on the policy agenda that we do agree on.

5. The only real beneficiary of this infighting is the fossil fuel industry, which hardly needs the help.
What can be done? First, separate the communications debate from the policy debate, and try to have a real conversation about the merits of each messaging approach given the outcomes we are trying to achieve. Second, discuss the policy agenda outside the context of this conversation about messaging, to isolate the items where there is substantial agreement. Third, galvanize around the agenda items where there is significant agreement, and push for those policies based on whatever strategy can be salvaged out of the communications discussion.

It may be that there are irreconcilable differences on the communications front (which, I suspect, is the case). If so, there still should be some understanding about what policies have our support- and we can cut back on the friendly fire. Pragmatically speaking, there is no benefit to allowing differences on messaging style to interfere with coalition building around policies.

A Case Study: “Innovators” vs. “Deployers”

To illustrate my points, let’s take a look at the most recent installment of this debate. It started, as best I can tell, with Stephen Lacey’s TakePart post here. Lacey takes issue with President Obama’s recent comment that “some big technological breakthrough” is needed to shift away from the high carbon energy sources that cause climate change. This statement, he says, is as negatively influential as those made by climate deniers.

Lacey goes on to outline the two camps in the climate action world: a) the deployment advocates who believe that high-penetrations clean energy of can be achieved with existing technology (let’s call them “Deployers”) and b) those who argue we cannot do anything on climate without major technological breakthroughs (let’s call them “Innovators”).

Lacey equates the communications and rhetoric from folks in this second camp to climate doubters and denialists. This prompted a fair bit of outrage from a crowd of folks who (I assume) believe they are in this second camp. Queue the slew of quips, factoids, and citing of precedent from both sides.

Below, I will use this recent incarnation of the “Deployers vs. Innovators” debate to walk through the 5 points I make above, and highlight the need for a pragmatic solution.

1. There is a difference between policy and communications.

Our governance system is designed to have rhetoric and politics intertwined. However this does mean that, by necessity, public policies must have an accompanying messaging strategy to survive in the political world.

Think tanks are positioned to advocate for policies which are consistent with their missions. Advocacy requires that policy and communications are conflated, so that they can maximize the impact of a given policy recommendation. After all, what good is a policy without a compelling story about its need and impact?

Related article: Using Oil Revenues to Research Alternative Fuels

This particular debate is mostly raging among current or former think-tankers. As such, it is not surprising that the distinction between policy and communications has gotten a little lost in the shuffle. However, policy and communications are two separate worlds, which have very different objectives and constraints.

The formal definition of Policy is “a course of action adopted and pursued by a government, ruler, political party, etc.” Communications is “the imparting or interchange of thoughts, opinions, or information by speech, writing, or signs.” The distinction that needs to be made here is that, while certainly communications is used to explain policies, the policy itself is an actual course of action. We can agree on policies, but disagree on how to communicate them.

2. There are disagreements about communications. However, conflating communications and policy allows disagreements about messaging to spill over into the policy discussion.

The hard part is that there is a genuine disagreement about communications. Below, I will lay out what the disagreement is and weigh in.

Let’s go back to Lacey’s piece. Communications in the “climate action” context that Lacey mentions is fundamentally about raising awareness about climate change so that action can be taken. The counterpoint usually is that climate communications should solely be about passing along information. As such, there is a difference on messaging because one side believes that communications should be oriented to achieve a certain outcome, and the other believes that approach often rushes conclusions. This difference may always exist, but I think there is something to be said for this particular example of equating Obama’s rhetoric with climate denial.

From a communications perspective, the way you talk about energy policy may impact the perception of the public on the climate change issue. For example, Lacey notes that the President talking about the need for “some big technological breakthrough” to address climate change has the same functional communications impact as denying that climate change is a problem. This is persuasive, when it comes to convincing the public to take action- there isn’t much light between a problem that isn’t real and a problem you can do nothing about.

The President saying that “some big technological breakthrough” is needed to fix the climate problem does have a very real impact on public perception. If there was an asteroid hurtling towards Earth, and the President said that “some big technological breakthrough” was needed to address the issue- most American’s could be forgiven for thinking that meant that we were doomed. I am sympathetic to the idea that climate communications isn’t just about getting Americans aware of the asteroid- it is about getting the President to do something about it.

Let’s address the counterpoint here. If communications ought to just be about passing along information, would the Presidents statement still be the functional equivalent of climate denial? Since the functional impact of climate denial is passing along facts that are not true, then answering this question is really a matter of asking: is the President right? Is some big technological breakthrough needed to address climate change?

I don’t think so. But, I also did not see many actually address this issue in the debate. Most of what I saw boiled down to, as section 3 will address, a conflation of innovation and deployment objectives. Lacey cites the NREL study showing electricity can be provided by 80 percent renewable sources. This seems like a case-in-point example for the fact that a big technological breakthrough is not needed to address climate change. Would there be costs? Yes. But do we need a technological breakthrough to do it…? No. This sounds contentious here, but it isn’t as adversarial as it sounds, as section 3 will explain.

If the communications shoe were on the other foot, it would be very surprising if the President talking about how we can deploy existing technologies to fight climate change caused a widespread public perception that innovation dollars are no longer needed. However, the opposite does seem to be the case. Because clean energy, in the climate context, is a means to an end.

3. Ultimately, there is little functional difference between the policies actually advocated by these two “camps.”

This is where there is a lot of huffing and puffing but not much real content. The people in the first camp, the Deployers, do not generally think that no technological innovation is needed. See Laceys comment that “of course we want to encourage technological leaps by investing in R&D and helping bring emerging technologies to market.” However, the threat of climate change is imminent, so relying solely on innovation would be foolish.

But the people in the second camp, the Innovators, don’t think we should just rely solely on innovation! In fact, they overwhelmingly do not seem to think that deployment of current technologies is mutually exclusive with technological innovation.

From a public policy perspective, this makes the grey area between these two camps pretty expansive. Do both camps support ARPA-E? Seems like it. What about the demonstration projects funded through Title XVII and the Recovery Act? As far as I can tell, yes. There are a few buzzwords and catchphrases which are supposed to distinguish these camps, but I cannot really see where the significant difference lies. Lets go through a few of them.

“Reform clean energy subsidies!” This one is thrown around an awful lot, which would make you think there is some disagreement. But honestly, I don’t know what it is. Let’s take the PTC for example. Neither side is enamored with the PTC in its current bulky, stop-and-go form- although I’d venture to say both sides would take it over n0 policy support for wind. Both sides support reforming the PTC to encourage technological progress, and shifting to a tax credit that shows more support for low capacity factor siting. Both camps seemed pretty supportive of AWEA’s proposed phase-out. I honestly could not tell you where the difference lies on this issue, except in some nuanced minutiae. I’ll get to why these differences don’t matter in section 4.

Related article: The Angels and Demons Of Clean Tech Investment

“The role of government in clean energy investment” is another alleged hotspot. The Innovators often cite the Department of Energy role in natural gas as a good precedent for what the government’s involvement in energy innovation should look like. But I doubt that, if really pressed, they would say that the U.S. government should abandon all deployment and push funding solely into energy innovation. Remember, that investment in natural gas took 30+ years to pay off- and the climate clock is ticking. Deployers believe in helping create a market for clean energy through government procurement and demand policies that “pull” technology to market. There may be a dispute over the extent of these policies, but state RPS’s and feed-in-tariffs, as well as greening the federal government, seem to have wide support.


Yes, the Deployers want to see stronger policy signals from the government to bolster the market adoption of what we already have. But none of them would recommend stripping the federal budget of innovation dollars, or crafting clumsy policy tools in the name of stability. Unfortunately for the Deployers, they haven’t had much luck getting an actual, nuanced, stable policy- so they have had to take what they can get. The Innovators have repeatedly called for research development and demonstration (so-called RD&D). Seems like we are singing the same tune here.

“Carbon tax.” If it were progressive, and put some money into innovation as well as deployment, I doubt you’d hear too much fuss.

The only substantial difference seems to be on cap-and-trade and, sorry everyone, that isn’t on the table at the moment. So it hardly seems worth squabbling over.

4. In letting this happen, the community misses an opportunity to coalesce around items on the policy agenda that we do agree on.

This brings me to my fourth point. As the above indicates, there is a pretty concrete and robust set of initiatives that have broad-based agreement. While there may be nuanced differences (how much money from a carbon tax goes to innovation, how exactly the PTC is structured and tiered to promote technological progress) we can all support the big picture.

We are missing out on an opportunity to pick and organize around the policy objectives that we share. Sure, Congress is dysfunctional and the Administration is being pulled to the “center” on issues like oil and gas. That is all the more reason the clean energy and climate community needs to outline a bold, cogent, and widely shared set of priorities that the Administration hears about- no matter who in the community they talk to.

Too often the disputes around messaging has sidetracked the productive conversation about policy progress. If we can’t agree on how we should talk about a carbon tax, can we at least agree that we need to talk about a carbon tax? If we cannot settle on whether rhetoric needs to be carefully crafted to spur action, can we at least agree that rhetoric should accurately capture the real picture?
For example, if the President had said “we need to continue to promote technological development and innovation to drive down the costs of clean energy, while aggressively deploying available technologies,” would any of us really be upset? We should all seize the President’s narrow rhetoric about relying solely on innovation as an opportunity to say “Mr. President, that is an important step, but let’s remember the big picture. Here are all the things you can do.”

5. The only real beneficiary of this infighting is the fossil fuel industry, which hardly needs the help.

My final point is that the only real winner when we in the clean energy policy community fight amongst ourselves is the fossil fuel industry. This is true on both fronts. When it comes to communications, there is nothing the fossil fuel industry wants more than to have us wait and see (indefinitely). But since both camps, practically speaking, want to innovate and deploy- that should be our message. No, we do not need to wait. We need to innovate and deploy, because climate change is real.

On a policy front, the story is similar. The fossil fuel industry is the real beneficiary of disputes within the clean energy community, because they benefit from the status quo. If we become so paralyzed by artificial differences that we fail to act, or articulate a common agenda, the U.S will default to the way things have always been.

We cannot afford that. We must find, and articulate, our common goals. We should continue to discuss the merits of different messaging strategies, but not at the cost of pragmatic change. The stakes are too high, and the headwinds are too strong.

So innovate and deploy, because climate change is real.

By. Adam James

Adam James is Executive Director of the Clean Energy Leadership Institute and a Research Assistant for Energy and Environmental Policy at American Progress. His work covers clean energy, finance, infrastructure, smart grid, and efficiency.

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