I gnash my environmentally-correct teeth when I see how what used to be called "coal" has now rebranded itself as "clean coal." As this article in Slate points out, there ain't no such thing.
The rebranding of coal, however, has got me thinking about why different political parties favor certain types of energy.
There are some ways of getting the energy we need that involve converting stuff to energy--stuff like coal, oil, natural gas, grain, and (to a lesser extent) uranium. Extracting, processing and selling that stuff is a very profitable and big business. Naturally, this energy options are favored by the party of big business.
There are also ways of getting energy that don't require the selling of stuff. These non-stuff sources include solar, geothermal, tidal, wind, and hydroelectric. Sure, there are big initial investments, as there are with any energy infrastructure. But once you've got your solar panels up and your windmill turning, you don't have to keep buying stuff to get energy out. Then there is no business for ExxonMobil, BP, etc.
This is not an especially deep or original insight, but it's still good to keep in mind as we make energy policy. Our energy mix twenty years from now is going to be quite different from what it is today--at least, I hope so (because if it's not, we're doomed). Both major party Presidential candidates are talking up this issue. But when it's time to cut deals, write funding lines, create programs, give tax breaks and otherwise use the power of the government to influence our energy future, it's a good idea to remember that we can have an energy future that doesn't involve the consumption of so much stuff. That kind of future, however, is not at all what Big Energy wants, and they will fight to block it.
What's more, because there isn't a massive and continuous revenue stream to be gained from non-stuff energy sources, it's less likely that our richest and strongest corporations will push for them. If you were the CEO of ExxonMobil, for example, would you invest in plants that make the equipment needed to harness the wind, solar, tidal, and geothermal energy, knowing that once your customers bought it, they wouldn't need you anymore? Or would you invest in "clean coal" and biofuels, both of which you can keep selling to consumers for years and years?
Capitalist self-interest, in other words, is not going to take us into the kind of non-stuff energy future we could--and should--have. It's going to be up to the government to change the economics of energy production, maybe by taxing stuff-energy and giving tax breaks for non-stuff energy. I can hear the oil companies screaming now.