Lights Out for Climate Bill? Lights (and $$) On for Photosynthesis.

Cleantech played second fiddle to an unexpected mini-forum on carbon trading during the lunchtime session at last week’s Cleantech Open National Conference in San Jose.

Attendees chomped on salad and gave half of their attention to a “rah-rah, go entrepreneurs” address by Jonathan Ortmans, senior fellow with the Kauffman Foundation, one of the event’s sponsors. But when the following panel discussion turned into a somewhat lively debate about carbon caps, people started to put down their forks and listen.
Kristina Johnson, the Department of Energy’s under secretary of energy (and major brainiac, with a number of startups and 45 US patents under her belt), had expressed the DOE’s support for a carbon cap a number of times in her morning keynote address. As she participated in the lunchtime panel, she reiterated that support. But her panel-mates—Dan Adler, president of the California Clean Energy Fund; Andrew Hargadon, faculty director of the UC Davis Center for Entrepreneurship; and Lesa Mitchell, VP, advancing innovation for the Kauffman Foundation—stressed that changing the way we do business is more important than setting a price on carbon.

“When you look at the supply side [of energy] you need a price on carbon…” said Johnson. “Mandates work for the short term, but the DOE understands that business needs long-term support.”

“But if we set a price on carbon now,” countered Adler, “we don’t have anything to set it against in the future.”

In the end, the panelists seemed to agree to disagree. And at the same time (literally…or at least, on the same day) China announced that it will launch domestic carbon trading programs, as a tool to help meet its 2020 emission reduction targets. “The market-based carbon-trading schemes will be a cost-effective supplement to administrative means,” Yu Jie, an independent policy observer, told China Daily. And, at the same time, our own Congress got nowhere fast, not only on carbon trading but on the whole ball of climate change legislative wax, as the climate bill was placed on a shelf.

Despite the impotence of Capital Hill, however, Johnson did announce some hopeful news during her address: the DOE is awarding up to $122 million over five years to a multidisciplinary team of top scientists who are developing ways to generate fuels directly from sunlight.

The money will be used to start an Energy Innovation Hub, which will be one of a number of “hubs” that the agency plans to fund under the leadership of Energy Secretary Steven Chu. (A hub devoted to the “modeling and simulation for nuclear reactors” was funded earlier this year, and another hub will be announced in the coming weeks.)

Freelance writer Mary Catherine O'Connor finds that a growing number of companies are proving the ways that they can make good financially, socially and environmentally (as the triple bottom line theory suggests).With that in mind, she contributes to Triple Pundit, as well as to Earth2Tech and other pubs focused on sustainability. She also writes The Good Route, an Outside Magazine blog that addresses the intersection of sustainability and the active/outdoor life.To find out more, or to reach her, go to