Making Clean Energy Cheap

Jesse Jenkins, at the Breakthrough Institute, eloquently proclaims one of the major themes of my Alternative Energy Page: “The urgent challenge of our century … is to make clean energy cheap.”

Without Affordable Clean Alternatives, South Africa Turns to Coal
Breakthrough Institute – Jesse Jenkins on March 23, 2010
Until clean and cheap energy sources are available for deployment on a massive scale, developing nations like South Africa will remain stuck in the Development Trap: forced to either sacrifice climate and ecological security in the name of development and poverty alleviation or to condemn countless millions of citizens to energy poverty in the name of climate protection. Breaking out of this untenable position is the urgent challenge of the century. It’s time to make clean energy cheap.

Jenkins’ article goes beyond the geopolitical, economic and environmental arguments for greener energy future in America, putting a human face on the cruel reality that faces much of the developing world – environment-friendly energy development often means continuing poverty (an abject, crushing sort of poverty not seen in the US for 80 years).

The problem is that, even in the developed world, we have not yet learned an answer to Jenkins’ plea to “make clean energy cheap.” As I’ve written on numerous occasions (here, here, and here, for example), getting to a clean energy future will not be cheap, nor will it come easily or quickly.

Basic science poses few of the hurdles to a green energy future, and the technology and engineering hurdles are largely ones of economy and scale. The problems, rather, relate to the political will of people and governments in the developed world to:

1. Create an investment climate in which private capital can confidently invest Billion$ in demonstration plants and start-ups. Alternative energy project will not thrive in an environment where oil bounces from $20 to $150 to $40 to $80 in just a few years.
2. Provide government and private leadership, encouragement and incentives for developing the business infrastructure and pool of trained and talented people to rapidly build alternative energy capacity.
3. Assure access to development and start-up capital during the early, uncertain stages of development


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5 Responses to “Making Clean Energy Cheap”

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  5. Jesse Jenkins Says:

    Bob, thanks for highlighting my post. I agree with you that the process of making clean energy cheap wont itself be cheap. That’s why the Breakthrough Institute has been leading advocates of a set of major, strategic, public investments to spur clean energy technology innovation, demonstration, scale-up and deployment as part of a strategy to drive down the real, unsubsidized costs of a suite of clean energy technologies.


    We think the rich and technologically advanced nations of the world can and should make those upfront investments to make clean energy cheap (in unsubsidized terms) over the next decade+. And if we do it right, we will reap the rewards of new export opportunities to meet the rapidly growing demand for affordable energy in the developing world.

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