Facing Sandy’s Fury, Don’t Let Clean Energy Naysayers Deny Us Hope
Co-authored with Diane Moss*
As a historic storm hammers the east — signaling the extremes promised by climate change — maybe we should listen to the wind. Isn’t it telling us to celebrate clean energy’s potential and push it forward with new urgency?
Yet we hear instead what can feel like a collective mourning over the demise of the green energy industry. One prominent media voice to show up at the funeral is columnist David Brooks, who eulogizes green technology in his recent New York Times piece “Sad Green Story.” The once-great hope for green technology, he suggests, has been destroyed by inept big-government ideologues and their counterparts around the globe.
But, mope no more. Green technology is actually an outstanding success story.
Brooks and others dismiss renewable energy as a failed jobs-creating strategy. But tell that to the Germans! Over about a decade, their effective renewable energy laws have spurred more than 380,000 new jobs.
Even here in the U.S., with our comparatively timid renewable energy platform, analysis by the Brookings Institution shows that despite the recession, from 2008-2010, US jobs in clean energy — like smart grids, solar PV and wind — outpaced our employment growth in other sectors by about two to one, thanks in part to the federal stimulus.
What’s more, clean, technology-related jobs already outnumber fossil fuel jobs, even though those dirty jobs have benefited from billions of government support annually over many decades.
And green jobs pay on average 13 percent more than other jobs.
Misguided voices seem to be trying to scare us into believing that renewable energy is a failed industry, a bursting bubble caused by overinvestment by governments around the world. Brooks assures us that shale gas is different: It “has become the current, hot revolutionary fuel of the future.” But he would do well to confer with his New York Times colleagues, who just released a report showing that most natural gas investors in the US are “losing their shirts,” as Exxon’s CEO puts it.
The reason: The recent massive rush into natural gas caused prices to plummet, forcing companies to sell natural gas for far less than they are committed to spend producing it. Brooks also implies that falling solar panel prices are a bad thing. What? Why not instead celebrate this development as helping to make clean energy increasingly accessible? Renewables energy analyst Craig Morris reports that in Germany, the installed cost of solar (18 euro cents/kWh) has already fallen below conventional retail power prices (26 euro cents/kWh). Although Brooks cries that solar manufacturers “will need subsidies far into the future,” he has already been proven wrong.
Take Germany again. It consistently surpasses every country in the world in producing power with solar, and is by far the global leader in total solar installation. And keep in mind that the sun’s radiation per square meter hitting Germany (its solar insolation) is somewhere between that of Seattle and Alaska — i.e. it’s no sunbelt. But subsidies do not explain Germany’s solar success. In fact, its feed-in tariff law, which has driven the country’s renewable energy development, is a guaranteed payment to the generator of renewable electricity — not a form of state subsidy. This difference has been clarified by many, including the European Court of Justice.
Brooks also resorts to a gross and all-too-common double standard: He complains about solar subsidies but fails to lament the vastly greater sums of government investment worldwide that the nuclear and fossil fuel industries have enjoyed compared to renewable energies over the past several decades. In the case of coal, which benefited from federal land grants as long ago as the early 1800’s, make that the last two centuries! In a display of extreme partisanship, Brooks stoops to blaming Al Gore’s 2006 movie An Inconvenient Truth for making bipartisan effort to combat climate change impossible. If Brooks were right, President Bush would not have signed landmark, bipartisan legislation in 2007 to increase lighting efficiency; nor would the notoriously right-leaning former president have significantly strengthened his targets in 2008 for U.S. greenhouse gas reductions. Moreover, T. Boone Pickens — Mr. Swift Boat supporter extraordinaire — would not have continued to be a vocal advocate for renewable energy and solving the climate problem.
What has made bipartisanship in tackling climate change impossible is not former Vice President Gore, but a radical GOP faction that has taken over Congress in recent years and made thwarting Obama its primary agenda item.
Brooks and others blame government “overreach” for picking bad investments (aka Solyndra) and generating oversupply. But let’s be clear: As Brooks himself notes, “Research and development spending on renewables is set to decline next year, according to United Nations figures, while the oil and gas sector is investing a whopping $490 billion a year in exploration.”
So the real problem is the continuing skewing of investments because fossil fuel giants still dominate political decision-making. Now that is something to be truly sad about. But about green energy’s record and prospects worldwide? Wipe your tears, all. Despite the blows, progress in the clean energy transition has been remarkably successful — giving us plenty of reason for hope. Hope we earn if we free ourselves from these myths and demand that our governments answer to us, not to the fossil and nuclear energy corporations.
* Diane Moss is a Policy Consultant on Climate and Energy of the World Future Council—a Hamburg-based international body of 50 leaders creating a “voice for future generations”—of which Frances Moore Lappé is a founding Councilor. Visit www.worldfuturecouncil.org.