DOE Secretary Chu's Convoluted Climate Economics

Written by Marlo Lewis - MasterResource.org



Last week, at the first Senate Environment and Public Works Committee hearing on S. 1733, the Kerry-Boxer "Clean Energy Jobs and American Power Act," Department of Energy Secretary Steven Chu explained the economic rationale for adopting a Kyoto-style cap-and-trade program.

His argument, in a nutshell, goes like this:

  1. Reducing emissions globally will require a massive investment in "clean technologies" - an estimated $2.1 trillion in wind turbines and $1.5 trillion in solar voltaic panels by 2030. These investments will create many green jobs.
  2. "The only question is - which countries will invent, manufacture, and export these clean technologies and which will become dependent on foreign products."
  3. The United States is falling behind. "The world's largest turbine manufacturing company is headquartered in Denmark. 99 percent of the batteries that power America's hybrid cars are made in Japan. We manufactured more than 40 percent of the world's solar cells as recently as the mid-1990s; today we produce just 7 percent."
  4. To seize the opportunity of clean tech and keep from falling farther behind, "we must enact comprehensive climate legislation," the most important element of which is a "cap on carbon emissions that ratchets down over time. That critical step will drive investment decisions towards clean energy."

There is so much silliness packed into Chu's testimony that it's hard to know where to begin.Let's start with Step 1: The world will need $3.6 trillion worth of clean tech by 2030. Suppose the world does decide to reduce emissions. There's no good reason to suppose that wind turbines and solar panels will ever contribute more than a small fraction of the "solution," because these technologies are not economically "sustainable" - they consume more wealth than they produce.

Germany has been subsidizing renewable electricity for two decades. A recent report by the Rheinisch-Westfälisches Institut (RWI) takes a critical look at the current centerpiece of this effort, the "feeder tariff" (subsidy) established by Germany's Renewable Energy Sources Act (EEG). Literally scores of billions of dollars in subsidies have failed to make wind and solar power either commercially viable or cost-effective as an emission-reduction strategy. Herewith a few highlights.

First, renewable power is a net drain on Germany's economy:

The key facts bear repeating. Germany is on course to subsidize solar power to the tune of $73.2 billion from 200o through 2010, yet solar provides a paltry 0.6% of the country's electricity.

Even as a carbon-reduction strategy, wind and solar power are uneconomic, RWI reports:

Again, the key facts merit repeating. The per-ton cost of reducing emissions via wind warms is four times the going rate of carbon credits. PVs reduce emissions at a cost as high as $1,050 per ton - 53 times more expensive than carbon permits traded at current prices. The net effect on emissions is zero.

Jon Boone made a similar observation in a recent post on MasterResource.Org:

With nearly 100,000 huge wind turbines now in operation throughout the world-35,000 in the USA-no coal plants have been closed anywhere because of wind technology. And there is no empirical evidence that there is less coal burned per unit of electricity produced as a specific consequence of wind.

Germany, for example, is still building coal power plants (see here, here, and here).

Although the EEG creates some "green jobs," the net impact on wealth and jobs is negative, RWI explains:

While employment projections in the renewable sector convey seemingly impressive prospects for gross job growth, they typically obscure the broader implications for economic welfare by omitting any accounting of off-setting impacts. These impacts include, but are not limited to, job losses from crowding out of cheaper forms of conventional energy generation, indirect impacts on upstream industries, additional job losses from the drain on economic activity precipitated by higher electricity prices, and consumers' overall loss of purchasing power due to higher electricity prices, and diverting funds from other, possibly more beneficial investment.

Proponents of renewable energies often regard the requirement for more workers to produce a given amount of energy as a benefit, failing to recognize that it lowers the output potential of the economy and is hence counterproductive to net job creation.

As my colleague Don Hertzmark observes: "If you must continually pour external resources into an energy source, then it cannot be a net source of jobs in the economy, since those resources could have gone somewhere else to create real work."

So, yes, via mandates and subsidies, governments around the world could pump $2.1 trillion into wind turbines and $1.5 trillion into PVs. But this is an unsustainable market that will make the world poorer, not wealthier, as Chu imagines.

Okay, on to Step 2: We must choose either to make clean tech or become dependent on foreign producers. This claim bespeaks multiple confusions.

Step 3: The United States is falling behind in clean tech manufacture. If we're "falling behind," then why do Toyota and Vestas build factories here? Besides, "falling behind" is a problem only if the clean-tech industy is a net wealth-creator. As we have seen, this is not the case for wind turbines and PVs, which is why they require market-rigging subsidies, mandates, and penalties levied against carbon-based energy.

If "clean tech" ever does become sustainable, the only legitimate role for policymakers would be to eliminate political impediments to market-driven investment. As MIT's Thomas Lee, Ben Ball, Jr., and Richard Tabors wrote in the conclusion of Energy Aftermath, a retrospective on Carter-era energy policies:

The experience of the 1970s and 1980s taught us that if a technology is commercially viable, then government support is not needed and if a technology is not commercially viable, no amount of government support will make it so.

Step 4: To be leaders in clean tech manufacture, we must put a price on carbon - a cap that ratchets down every year.

Chu confounds ends and means. He began by arguing that we needed to invest in clean tech in order to reduce emissions. Now, he says we must reduce emissions to spur investment in clean tech! Apparently, if you can't sell cap-and-trade on the basis of climate alarm, claim that it's "about jobs."

Another confusion - Chu suggests U.S. firms can't or won't develop clean-tech products for sale in the global marketplace unless the federal government boosts domestic market share by putting a price on carbon.

Three problems here. First, a price on carbon does relatively little to increase the market share of wind and solar power, because even with a price penalty to handicap fossil energy, wind and solar are still not competitive with natural gas in most markets. That's why the Waxman-Markey bill includes a renewable portfolio standard in addition to a cap-and-trade program.

Second, Chu fears that China is going to eat our lunch because it's investing heavily in clean-tech manufacture, yet China does not put a price on carbon to "drive investment towards clean energy." So Chu's thesis that cap-and-trade is the key to building a clean-tech export sector is refuted by the very country he spotlights as both model and threat.

Indeed, Beijing's steadfast rejection of cap-and-trade helps China's clean-tech producers compete in the global marketplace. Putting a price on carbon would jeopardize their access to abundant, affordable coal-based power (China's consumption of coal for electric generation is projected to more than double from 2006 to 2030). 

Third, a booming domestic market for a product is not a prerequisite to success in exporting that product. In the 1980s, the Asian Tigers produced enormous quantities of exports that were not widely purchased in domestic markets. China has become the world's largest producer of solar photovoltaics, producing about 820 megawatts of PVs in 2007. But, due to their relatively high cost, China in 2007 deployed only about 20 megawatts of PVs domestically for "remote off-grid applications." Once again, China's experience rebuts rather than supports the case Chu is trying to make. 

If clean-tech products yield high returns in the global marketplace, enterprising U.S. firms will get into the game even if the products do not have a big market in the United States.

The irony is that a cap-and-trade program could actually be counter-productive to the development of an export-oriented clean-tech sector. Low-cost energy is a source of competitive advantage, as China powerfully demonstrates. By increasing energy costs, cap-and-trade would make all U.S.-based manufacture less competitive, including companies specializing in clean-tech products.


MasterResource is a scholarly advocacy blog dedicated to energy/climate issues. One question we all ask ourselves is: how will this post appear tomorrow, next month, next year, or in a decade? Are we truth-seekers or mere shouters for the moment?  We advocate private property rights, voluntary market relations (instead of government coercion), and sound science, but our preference cannot come at the expense of scholarship (the factual record; logical and relevant theory). This is our standard, and we invite comments to this end from our readers.


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