McCain Proposes Government-Sponsored Prize For Development of Better Battery Technology
McCain Makes A Bold ProposalGas prices have so affected American economic and political life that it appears we are beginning to see a kind of 'green arms race' between the two presidential candidates. Granted, the green merits of some of the candidate's proposals have been dubious or downright non-existent: John McCain, for instance, wants a massive increase in nuclear power, a summer gas-tax holiday, and off-shore drilling, while Barack Obama is a big supporter of ethanol and has waffled on "clean-coal" technology. Still, what's clear is that energy policy is a major issue in this year's election, and nothing highlights that more vividly than today's bold proposal by Senator McCain to offer a "$300 million prize for the development of a battery package that has the size, capacity, cost and power to leapfrog the commercially available plug-in hybrids or electric cars."
You read that right: McCain wants the U.S. government to offer $300 million for the development of a car battery that is 30% cheaper than current technology. As the Senator pointed out in a speech at California State University, Fresno: “that’s one dollar, one dollar, for every man, woman and child in the U.S. . .A small price to pay for helping to break the back of our oil dependency. . .’’ But he was just getting warmed up with his plans for how to get America off foreign oil.McCain Unveils Other PlansFor starters, he suggested that automakers that fail to meet current efficiency standards should be subjected to greater fines. He also wants to see Detroit build more flex-fuel vehicles, and proposes more incentives "to increase use of domestic and foreign alcohol-based fuels such as ethanol." (One way he wants to increase the use of foreign ethanol is through the abolition of the tariff on Brazilian ethanol, which is cheaper and far less energy-intensive to produce; he also wants to reduce or eliminate subsidies for American corn-based ethanol) Finally, McCain discussed a 'Clean Car Challenge' that would "provide U.S. automakers with a $5,000 tax credit for every zero-carbon emissions car they develop and sell."
What to Make of This?Regardless of your opinion of ethanol or plug-in hybrid/pure electric vehicles, this speech is great news for energy and climate change. For one thing, Obama will be forced to respond, and most likely will come up with more plans that will spur innovation and reduce our dependence on foreign energy sources. If this tit-for-tat continues all the way to November, we could see a number of innovative, bold proposals from each candidate, virtually assuring that our next president will have made a promise to do something new when it comes to energy policy. What's more, Americans are being exposed to a critical dialogue about energy independence and climate change mitigation. Here's the thing: what's good for the latter is not necessarily good for the former, and I think that as the months go by and people are more exposed to the distinction, there will be increasing demand that any plan take into consideration both issues.
In other words, a policy might reduce our need for foreign oil but have limited climate change benefits. A great example is corn-based ethanol: at best, it is a stepping stone to advanced biofuels; at worst, it is little more than a chance for agribusiness to make a ton of money and politicians to claim they are 'helping the environment.' Either way, the current impact will be a slight decrease in imported oil, and an even slighter reduction in greenhouse gas emissions.
We can expect the American public to begin distinguishing between policies that will really lower gas prices (investing in better battery technology) and those that won't (off-shore drilling, a summer gas-tax holiday), as well as policies that will get us off foreign oil (electrifying our transportation system) and those that will have a slight impact, but whose social and environmental benefits are highly questionable (corn-based ethanol).
This Sets A New PrecedentHigh Gas Prices, assuming they stay relatively high, will end up being a tremendous blessing in disguise. Think about it: in recent memory, how many bold, exciting proposals have we heard from politicians regarding, well, anything? What McCain is proposing is that the government catalyze the very entrepreneurial activity that made America what it is. This is essential because while the government did well with things such as the development of the internet, it has been terribly cautious with respect to transportation and renewable energy. The entire battle over CAFE standards could literally be rendered moot by a $300 million prize to improve battery technology. So what we're seeing, potentially, is the setting of a new precedent for the government's role in spurring the innovation needed to solve some of America's--and the world's--more pressing problems.
I, for one, am excited to see what other ideas come out of this election.
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