Reports of Clean Energy’s Demise Have Been Greatly Exaggerated

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If the notion “he who lives by the subsidy dies by the subsidy” is true, then oil, gas and nuclear companies must be dying a thousand deaths.

“A Sad Green Story,” the recent New York Times article by David Brooks, is way off the mark with where we need to go as a country and as an entire planet. Now is not the time to malign investments in our health, welfare and a sustainable energy future.

The idea that our energy industry should be a free market, without “government interference,” is regrettably mistaken. The current influx of natural gas came from investments in shale drilling technology that had lots of government support beginning in the 1970s. Our entire electric grid is a public-private partnership where the government picked winning companies to receive a monopoly to develop and deploy electricity to every U.S. home with guaranteed returns on investments and the use of eminent domain laws to build power and pipe lines. The nuclear industry would not exist without massive subsidies and the oil and gas industries have had huge tax advantages and subsidies for decades, making investments in green energy seem like pocket change. Despite a few that have not fared well, many clean energy investments are paying off. At a 90 percent success rate, they’re far outpacing the success of private, venture-capital-funded companies and are employing thousands. In September, the Department of Energy announced having weatherized more than one million homes. The program has provided relief to millions of consumers in the way of energy savings and has stimulated the economy by adding thousands of jobs. For every dollar put into these programs, they have returned $2.5 dollars in benefits. And here’s something that should make both sides of the aisle happy: More than 90 percent of the equipment and materials used for these residential projects are manufactured in the U.S.

Mr. Brooks’s assertion that renewable energy is “not a jobs program” could not be further from the truth.

As of 2010, the clean energy industry accounts for more than 2.7 million jobs and outperformed fossil fuel jobs by a factor of two to one, according to The Brookings Institution. (Of note, jobs in clean energy also happen to pay well. By contrast, 40 percent of fossil fuel industry workers get the minimum wage, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.) It was just announced that all new electric energy generation in September was attributed to solar and wind. The latest “Energy Infrastructure Update,” also states that renewable energy accounted for 43.8 percent of new energy generated in 2011. This growth in wind, solar and other alternatives will surely support thousands of jobs now and in the future. In the energy efficiency industry, an often overlooked portion of the clean energy economy, there are five times the number of jobs more than in the coal or oil industries. These jobs are expected to increase four-fold in the next 10 years.

The $90 billion spent on green energy investments that continues to be replayed over and over again, is a wild exaggeration. This amount includes many other things like mass transit, power plant improvements and research grants — not just “green” energy projects. In terms of the loan recipients, the federal government has a very respectable track record. Of the 33 companies that received federal support, only three have gone out of business. This is hardly a “wasteful disappointment.” We should celebrate these success stories, instead of allowing them to be overshadowed by the Solyndras of the industry.

Last, but certainly not least, the article undermines an industry that helps mitigate climate change.

Have we forgotten about the dangerous summer heat waves that threatened dozens of states? Or the hurricane that affected the schedule of the Republican Convention? What about the tornadoes, severe thunderstorms and massive droughts we experienced all too recently? Are our memories that short? If the recent past doesn’t scare us, impending disaster should. “Frankenstorm,” a hurricane-winter storm mix, is threatening to wreak havoc on the east coast — just in time for Halloween. In a recent article from The Wall Street Journal, Daniel Yergen states, “The rapid growth of oil and natural gas production represents a major opportunity for the U.S.” We may be able to extend our fossil fuel addiction by another 30 years, but we can’t afford to close our eyes to long-term reality in the face of short-term economic conditions. We must continue supporting renewable energy and efficient technologies, or the planet, us, our children and future generations will suffer.

The one point that I do agree with Mr. Brooks on is the level of political partisanship that has grown up around the issue of energy and the environment. This does not help move good energy policies forward. But let’s be clear: Clean energy is not a sad story. When our political leaders continue to steer the country over the fossil fuel cliff, that’s the real tear-jerker.

Article by Stephen L. Cowell, originally published in the Huffington Post, appearing courtesy Energy Efficient Markets.

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About Author

Walter’s contributions to CleanTechies over the past 4 years have been instrumental in growing the publications social media channels via his ongoing editorial and data driven strategies. He is the founder and managing director of Sunflower Tax, a renewable energy tax and finance consultancy based in San Diego, California. Active in the San Diego clean technology community, participating in events sponsored by CleanTech San Diego, EcoTopics, and Cleantech Open San Diego, Walter has also been a presenter at numerous California Center for Sustainability (CCSE) programs. He currently serves as an adjunct professor at the University of San Diego School of Law where he teaches a course on energy taxation and policy.

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