Nature abhors a vacuum, and since the economy is part of nature (and not the other way around!), it should not be surprising to see that in the absence of any meaningful government action on climate change, a development that will surely drive billions of investment sooner or later, other players are going to step into the breach.
Google has made a bold statement with its announcement that it will be investing in a $5 billion Atlantic coastal electrical backbone to connect the major cities along the east coast with a network of offshore wind turbines that have yet to appear on the scene.
They will be working with Trans-Elect to construct the line. On the financial side, they will be partnering with Good Energies for up to 75% of the total cost. An additional ten percent will be contributed by the Japanese firm, Marubeni. The investment will be a major boon for a renewable energy. The backbone commitment preempts the chicken vs. egg problem of building wind turbines with no way to connect them to their customers.
And while the government won’t be driving the project, it will still be regulating it. Federal Energy Regulatory Commission chairman Jon Wellinghoff called it, “one of the most interesting transmission projects that I’ve ever seen walk through the door. It provides a gathering point for offshore wind for multiple projects up and down the coast.”
These actions by private companies are laudable and can be an important part of the overall solution. This does not mean we do not need government action, or as some people seem to be saying today, that we don’t need government at all. It may well be that as Al Gore recently said at the World Business Forum, capitalism is the most efficient system on Earth for moving resources and getting things done. But the fact of the matter is that businesses are in business to make the world a better place, not for everyone, but for themselves. I don’t know why this idea is so hard to grasp. Government, at least in its uncorrupted state, is the only entity whose stated mission is to defend the interests of society as a whole. All other players will have narrower interests that are generally self-serving. Sometimes these interests align well with those of society, as they appear to in this case, but that is certainly not always true. One would hope that as more businesses become more sustainable, we will see more and more alignment. But there will always be a need for a oversight entity to ensure that the concerns of the overall system with all of its players are all being met.
One of the problems with the utility industry today, that stands in the way of progress, is how fragmented it is, with so many different entities owning different pieces of the puzzle. This won’t necessarily be helped by Google’s jump into the fray, but then again, this could be a way around the inertia. Cash, it would seem, offers the path of least resistance, which is, after all, the path that electricity always takes first.
RP Siegel is co-author of the eco-thriller Vapor Trails. Like airplanes, we all leave behind a vapor trail. And though can we can easily see others’, we rarely see our own.
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