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White House’s green energy focus resonates with Stanford Law School center

Efforts by Stanford Law School’s Steyer-Taylor Center for Energy Policy and Finance to prompt congressional action that would lower the cost of renewable energy projects may have found new momentum after President Barack Obama’s recent call for a bipartisan approach to climate change, according to the center’s leaders.

“I think it’s very helpful that the President has talked very publicly and very strongly about needing to address climate change,” commented Dan Reicher J.D. ’83, the center’s director.

Reflecting a lobbying effort dating back to 2009, Reich argued that Congress could easily reduce the cost of funding renewable energy projects by adjusting the tax code without imposing an additional burden on taxpayers.

“I think one of the areas that Washington, D.C., could be very helpful [in] is unleashing more capital, that is this intersection with the finance community,” Reicher said. “That’s why I’m hopeful about a couple of these mechanisms that could bring dramatically lower cost[s] in capital, renewables and more capital for energy efficiency.”

Twenty-nine members of Congress recently called for similar measures in an open letter to Obama in December.

“Minor changes to the federal tax code could provide the renewable energy industry access to large pools of low-cost private capital,” the letter said.

The push towards addressing climate change and renewable energy has simultaneously influenced Stanford’s engineering department, with faculty placing an increased emphasis on prompting students to examine the environmental consequences of their projects.

At an ethics and engineering talk on Feb. 5, John Kunz Ph.D. ’84, executive director of the Stanford Center for Integrated Facility Engineering, told a group of students pursuing advanced degrees in engineering that climate change is the most serious ethical question facing their generation, impacting choices as fundamental as how they might choose to design their buildings.

Warning students about the dangers of complacency, Kunz also urged them to think about their building’s use and to communicate with their clients accordingly.

In his State of the Union speech, Obama framed a push towards developing renewable energy sources as an invaluable step in keeping the United States a leading actor in technology’s evolution.

“Our first priority is making America a magnet for new jobs and manufacturing,” Obama said in his speech.

While acknowledging a historical deficit in the United States’ investment in green energy relative to other nations, Obama argued that the current narrative is about recovering lost ground.

“Four years ago, other countries dominated the clean energy market and the jobs that came with it,” he said in his speech. “We’ve begun to change that.  Last year, wind energy added nearly half of all new power capacity in America.”

“I was very encouraged by his talk, actually,” said Dariush Rafinejad, associate consulting professor of management science and engineering.

Rafinejad conceded, however, that the lack of popular interest in or backing for funding green energy sources might preclude any significant progress.“These [advances] usually happen when the society at large support that,” Rafinejad said. “That means education… He has to connect it to society and bring the constituents along.”

Reicher also expressed optimism about the potential for effective action by the legislative branch on the subject of green energy.

“I think there clearly is major resistance on Capitol Hill about serious legislation or climate change,” Reicher said. “I think that our likely opportunities are going to be through administrative action at the White House and federal agencies.”

He emphasized, however, the enduring difficulty of effectively developing and commercializing green technology.

“It’s a lot more difficult to scale up a piece of clean energy technology from small to large scale than it is to take something in the information technology area, software or hardware and get that fully commercialized,” he said.

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