In mid November former Vice President Al Gore became a partner in the venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers. The story has received a lot of attention in the business press; you can find one example on CNNMoney.com titled Al Gore’s next act: Planet-saving VC. The story first appeared in Fortune Magazine. Most commentators think that the connection between Kleiner Perkins and Gore is a good fit; the former Vice President is a force in the push for green energy systems and the VC firm – which has made most of its money by backing IT related companies – has made that one of its new focus areas.
On November 20, 2007, the Wall Street Journal published an editorial titled Global Warming, Inc. that implied that Gore’s political connections were as much a part of the match as his expertise in climate change. This idea has some merit; without continued government subsidies many alternative energy investments have little financial viability.
On November 23, 2007, Carl Pope, the Executive Director of the Sierra Club rushed to Mr. Gore’s defense with a letter to the editor of the Wall Street Journal. It is a very short letter with the following rather provocative first sentence.
Smart prosecutors go after murderers, not shop lifters. The Wall Street Journal (“Global Warming, Inc.,” editorial, Nov. 20) should spend its op-ed space on the really big subsidies — like new nuclear power plants — but instead you choose to pick on entrepreneurial start-ups like solar and biofuels.
There are certainly some entrepreneurs in the alternative energy business, just like there are still some small farmers who earn some benefits from the massive subsidies given in the farm bill. However, just like in farming, the vast majority of the money winds up in the hands of some very large corporations with some very wealthy and powerful stockholders and executives.
The big money in solar, wind and biomass goes to names that you recognize like General Electric, Siemens, Shell, BP, ADM (Archer Daniels Midland, which also benefits greatly from the farm subsidies), and FPL. If you include the subsidies aimed at carbon sequestration projects, you can expand the list to include companies like Southern Company, American Electric Power and Peabody Coal. (If you wonder why I picked the particular utilities I did, take a look at a recent list of the world’s top carbon emitting companies).
These organizations have plenty of professionals involved in working the halls of congress to help them develop technologies that may someday compete. In the meantime, most of them will tell you that they would exit the business without the continuation of current programs that put billions into their corporate coffers.
Carl Pope, the Sierra Club and the Cato Institute know this, but continue to harp on the fact that the leaders of the nuclear industry have been working hard for years to get recognition that their technology deserves some assistance as well. As the industry leaders continue to demonstrate, existing nuclear plants operating today account for more than 70% of the carbon free electricity generated in the US and almost all of the rest comes from large hydroelectric dams. For some odd or nefarious reason, the Sierra Club hates both of those sources of clean electricity.
I actually agree with the Sierra Club about new dams, but have more nuanced thoughts about those that are already built and operating. It does not make much sense to think that getting rid of them now will restore the affected river systems to their former state of beauty.
It is really time for the organization to dig deep into its corporate memory to a time when clear thinkers established the idea of “Atoms, not Dams”.
I found an essay titled Nuclear Power: Back to the Future that does an excellent job of trying to get libertarians to recognize that no matter what they think about government subsidies, fission is not the enemy. Here is the lead part of the essay:
On August 8th, President Bush signed the Energy Policy Act of 2005. It commits the United States government to a broad program of loan guarantees, subsidies, and liability coverage for nuclear power plants, some of which will be constructed directly by the Federal government. So, after running the US nuclear power industry out of business (no new plants have been ordered since the 1970s), the Federal government will now take over and build prototype nuclear plants itself while subsidizing those owned by its cronies.
Of course no libertarian is going to support government subsidies or assumption of liability for any industry. However, nuclear fission and fusion aren’t the enemy. Almost all the energy we use is from nuclear power, whether from the sun’s fusion energy that is locked in coal, or the Earth’s fission energy in geothermal power. The enemy is Fascism: subsidies to those who fund political factions.
There is one other section of the essay that should be read very carefully, especially in context of the Sierra Club’s shift from its “Atoms Not Dams” mantra of the early 1960s to its mid 1970s position of opposition to nuclear power.
Money from various interests (among them fossil fuel companies) flowed into “environmental” organizations in the 1970s. Coincidentally, the leadership of the Sierra Club and other environmentalist organizations had a sudden, simultaneous revelation: nuclear power was inherently evil. The solution was to repent of the hubris of nuclear power and return instead to burning coal (or cow dung, renamed “biomass”).
Source: Nuclear Power: Back to the Future October 11, 2005