Monday, August 22, 2011

Solar Fizzles; Green Jobs "Pipe Dream"

This week, I'm going to focus on the U.S. energy sector. I'll be discussing the landscape broadly, and then specifically discussing the tax policies intended to subsidize the development of renewable energy.

Before I get into the tax policy angle, a couple recent developments:

[1] Governments Lose Bets on Solar Manufacturing

Two U.S. solar manufacturers have recently filed for bankruptcy (Evergreen Solar and Intel spin-off SpectraWatt). The price of solar panels has fallen dramatically as China ramps low-cost manufacturing. That's good news for U.S. energy consumers and the environment, because the cost differential between solar power and power generation from fossil fuels is narrowing. If the trend continues, solar power will become a competitive alternative energy source without government subsidies.

However, the good news for consumers and the environment is bad news for U.S. solar manufacturers and their stakeholders (investors, employees, government benefactors). Despite federal and state subsidies directed at the solar industry, the cost of manufacturing in the United States far exceeds the cost of manufacturing in China and other emerging markets. Evergreen Solar made a losing bet on the wrong technology. SpectraWatt crumbled under market pricing conditions. Industry analysts predict more consolidation in the industry (i.e., more bankruptcies for U.S. and foreign manufacturers).

Along with investors and employees, taxpayers joined in the pain from the bankruptcy filings. Massachusetts directed $21 million in cash grants to Evergreen (along with tax incentives that are now moot). SpectraWatt's bankruptcy filing reported $6 million in "state economic inducements" as assets.

Talk about skewed incentives. Our politicians get to "bet" on business deals with other people's money. If the "bet" is successful, the politician takes the credit. If the "bet" is a bust, the politician blames China and suffers no consequences (because he or she has no skin in the game). Unlike a private enterprise, the "investment" process is so opaque that it's difficult to identify anyone to hold accountable.

[2] Green Jobs "Pipe Dream"

The collapse of the U.S. solar manufacturing industry is the latest bad news for advocates of a transformative "green" economy. On August 18, the New York Times published an interesting article discussing the dismal growth in the "green jobs" sector. (The article focused on the San Francisco Bay Area and California with some general observations about the sector nationally.)

In a development that will take few of us by surprise:
[T]he green economy is not proving to be the job-creation engine that many politicians envisioned. President Obama once pledged to create five million green jobs over 10 years. Gov. Jerry Brown promised 500,000 clean-technology jobs statewide by the end of the decade. But the results so far suggest such numbers are a pipe dream.... A study released in July by the non-partisan Brookings Institution found clean-technology jobs accounted for just 2 percent of employment nationwide [2.7 million jobs].
I suppose that we get the politicians that we deserve. If voters took these types of "pledges" at face value, they were bound to be disappointed. I have no problem with either politician's attempt to set "lofty" aspirations. However, at some point, a "lofty" aspiration starts to resemble the empty promise of a snake oil salesman. Let's see if anyone in the next election cycle tries to hold President Obama accountable for overpromising and underdelivering on his green jobs "pipe dream."

[3] Your Bus Driver Has A "Green Job"

One note on methodology. I skimmed the Brookings Institution report; the allocation of "green jobs" among industries is surprising. The largest two categories of "green jobs" are Waste Management/Treatment (386,000 jobs) and Public Mass Transit (351,000 jobs), followed by Energy-Saving Building Materials (162,000 jobs), Regulation and Compliance (142,000 jobs), Professional Environmental Services (141,000 jobs), Organic Food/Farming (130,000 jobs), and Recyling/Refuse (129,000 jobs).

I'm sure that many of the individuals working in these industries would be surprised that their position qualifies as a "green job." I understand the methodology, but most of these job "categories" have existed for decades -- long before politicians became obsessed with "sustainability." When you start looking at the numbers, it makes you wonder how President Obama kept a straight face when he pledged to create five million new green jobs over the next decade.

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