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News Analysis

Experts debate whether Bush's Clear Skies plan on power plant emissions clears the way for better emissions technologies.
Fortnightly Magazine - April 1 2002

Aside from scalability problems, though, there are serious intellectual property hurdles to commercializing these nascent technologies, Bickle says. "In all three cases, the intellectual property has been totally messed up," he says. Basically, it is not clear who owns the intellectual property rights to the inventions, due to conditions in some of the research grants from the Department of Energy, or sale of some rights in order to get another grant to build a prototype, according to Bickle. "So, as an investor, what do you buy as an investment? You'd like to be buying patents that nobody else can use. But it's not clear that's the case here. So that's a big barrier to entry," he says.

Perhaps the biggest barrier to entry is the current regulatory uncertainty. As Alix testified before Congress, "[u]ntil you require emission reductions, there will never be a commercially available control technology" for pollutants like mercury.

Industry, naturally, worries about the cost of as-yet untested or undeveloped technologies. Alix tried to allay some of those fears when he told Congress that "[t]he cost of achieving environmental compliance is usually significantly less than estimated at the time regulations are developed."

Silva also makes the point that once faced with an immovable regulatory deadline, "the industry actually has a decent record of complying and bringing pollution control technologies online, without significant disruptions to reliability." Bickle maintains that "[r]ight now, the huge impediments to implementing new technology are all political, they're not capital and they're not technology." He estimates that absent regulatory hurdles, the technologies found by his firm could be fully implemented within 18 months.

As Bickle points out, coal-fired plants still make up the majority of generation assets in this country. He says, "we need to quit doing stupid things, we need to quit fighting each other, and figure out a way for the greens and the technologists to come together. We're not talking about making Napalm here, we're talking about making clean air. We need to find a way to come together and use good science to achieve the goal for less pollution."

Bickle, though, is not convinced that the Bush administration can get its plan passed. "Politically, Bush can't get a free market cap-and-trade-Clinton could have done that but Bush can't. So I think we're going to stick to command-and-control for a while, instead of cap-and-trade." Duke Energy's Mitchell is somewhat more optimistic. "There has been a lot of interest in this type of reform," he says, pointing to multi-pollutant proposals from Sens. Bob Smith, James Jeffords, and Congressman Henry Waxman. But in an election year, "I think it will be difficult to pass legislation this year. I think it's more likely in later years."

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