Sustainable Technologies and Public Policy
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* Public policy
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local | state | global

Local Policy
At the community level there are many ways in which people can work together to create sustainable solutions. LAGI is really focused on applications at this scale through educational outreach and art in public spaces. It is important that community leaders and city councils support the proliferation of renewable technologies at the local level. Micro-generation installations that can liberate a single house or a cooperative of houses from the electricity grid should be championed with financial incentives and public recognition. It is in the long-term interests of city planning to back such efforts since a more diversified electrical generation capacity is a more secure and democratic one.

At a slightly larger scale, cities are supporting large renewable energy installations that can serve to offset the energy costs of the municipality. Cities are responsible for keeping the lights on our public streets, heating and air conditioning our public buildings, and all sorts of other high-demand load end uses. The money to keep all this electricity flowing comes usually from local and regional property tax revenues. If cities have the foresight to install solar and wind and biogas generation into the infrastructure, once the capital costs are paid, the energy is practically free. The money can then be used to expand social programs and/or tax rates may even be reduced as a result.

Feed-in tariffs are an excellent way to stimulate investment in renewable energy. Using this mechanism, private entities can be ensured that they will be able to sell the electricity that they produce locally to the utility grid and that the price they receive for each kilowatt-hour is fixed at a high enough value to warrant the capital expense of the installation of the equipment. The cost implications to consumer energy prices are negligible or neutral since the proliferation of wind energy installations can actually have a price-dampening effect on energy as has happened in Denmark. Feed-in tariffs can be beneficial on the scale of single family homes up to medium size installations of typically less than 5 megawatts.

To support localized generation of electricity and energy conservation, municipalities can support programs to replace old electric meters with newer models that enable net-metering (discounting energy produced from energy consumed) and smart-metering (real-time communication with a centralized authority to monitor demand levels).

State Policy
Feed-in tariffs can be design both locally and through national legislation. The success of feed-in tariffs at the national scale can be seen in Germany which has seen a great expansion in renewable energy installations since the inception of its EEG law in 1990.

Utility companies and state-wide cooperatives can give consumers the ability to purchase renewable energy in a privatized energy market and consequently stimulate the expansion and innovation of clean and sustainable infrastructure.

Renewable Energy Certificates (REC: usually defined as one megawatt-hour) can be sold by renewable energy producers to a purchaser who has an interest in certifying themselves as green consumers. Because they have intrinsic value they can often be secondarily traded in the open market.

Another way to look at public energy policy as it relates to emissions and conservation is to focus on consumer pricing. Currently, energy is subsidized in the vast majority of nations, some far more than others. But in no way is the consumer price of energy anywhere in the world considered in terms of the externalized costs of its production: pollution, depletion of finite resources, deforestation and decreasing biodiversity, and public health effects. If we were to place a monetary value on these things (and we do have to pay to remediate the effects of these things with real money after all) then what would the real price of a kilowatt-hour or a litre of gasoline be? Can governments begin to shift their tax policies to bring about a reflection of this? We've done a small study on this matter and have our own solution to offer: Energy Conservation Tax Policy.

Global Policy
There is a massive disparity between the way that energy is produced and consumed in "industrialized" countries as compared to countries that are yet in the process of "developing" (to use the terminology of the United Nations). Since the discovery of fossil fuel resources in the late 19th century, the countries that had by that time established themselves as global powers began to develop their economies at an accelerated pace. This was enabled by the importation of natural resources from "colonial economies" who were not in a position to receive a fair price for the resources. We now find ourselves in a situation where the more industrialized nations of the world, as the price for their development over the past century, have increased the parts per million of greenhouse gases in the Earth's atmosphere to levels that are contributing to a warming of the average temperature of the planet and to a rise in global sea levels. These changes to the global ecosystem effect everyone, but most significantly they effect smaller less industrialized parts of the world that are dependent on local agriculture and small island nations that may become entirely submerged by the oceans in a 4 degree warming scenario.

It is therefore incumbent upon all nations of the world, but especially those nations who have taken and still take greatest advantage of the burning of fossil fuels, to work together and find real solutions to global climate change. In this spirit, the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change treaty was founded in 1992 to come up with international binding obligations that will have the effect of CO2 emissions reductions that can avert the more disastrous scenarios of climate change. The parties to the UNFCC treaty engage in yearly meetings since 1995 known as the Conference of Parties (COP). At the third such COP in Kyoto, Japan, the first protocol was agreed upon and ratified by most parties (with the notable exception of the USA). It set firm reduction obligations on greenhouse gas emissions (6-8% below 1990 levels for 2008-2010) for developed countries and established international mechanisms for attaining them. COP 15 in Copenhagen, Denmark in 2009 failed to reach an agreement on post 2012 obligations.

The mechanisms for greenhouse gas reductions that the Kyoto Protocol outlined are emissions trading (a.k.a. cap-and-trade), clean development mechanism, and joint implementation. More information about these from the UNFCC's position can be seen by clicking the the links. There are many ways in which these mechanisms have the potential to support the implementation of renewable energy generation capacity in both developed and in developing nations. They are far from perfect however and the practical result of the Kyoto Protocol has not been a net reduction in emissions. Rather, emissions have continued to go up. While OECD countries have managed to stay fairly flat or even reduce emissions slightly, fast-developing economies with large populations like China and India continue to expand their electrical capacity (with coal and oil) and to put more cars on their roads. There are many valid criticisms of the value of the Kyoto Protocol mechanisms and like many public policy issues, the devil is in the details.