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Thursday, October 14, 2010

Can we win the clean energy race? Should we?

Browsing the WSJ.com website, I found an advertorial that proclaimed
China Becomes “Clean Energy Powerhouse”

China, determined to be on the forefront of green technology, “is emerging as the world’s clean energy powerhouse,” according to a recent study from The Pew Charitable Trusts, an independent non-profit organization based in Washington, DC

For the first time ever, China topped all nations last year in investments in low-carbon energy like wind and solar power. Over the past five years, environmentally friendly energy finance and investments in China grew from $2.5 billion to $34.6 billion, almost double the $18.6 billion in investments attracted by the United States.

And that is only one part of the country’s growing emphasis on environmentally friendly products and practices. Along with ambitious targets for wind, biomass and solar energy, China aims to spend 34 percent of its $586 billion stimulus package on green projects.
The advertorial, sponsored by Hong Kong-based Cathay Pacific, went on to note the airline’s involvement in carbon offsets and the other customary forms of greenwashing used by big businesses. (I don’t take the dead tree WSJ anymore, so I didn’t see when/if it ran in the real paper.)

Pew is an environmental advocacy group that got a lot of coverage when their study of G-20 countries (entitled “Who's Winning the Clean Energy Race?”) came out in March. A well-orchestrated PR campaign — tied to legislative hearings in Congress — brought the issue back to the forefront last month.

The numbers in the report compiled by Bloomber New Energy Finance seem accurate. However, the conclusions seem intended to stampede US public sentiment towards greater Federal spending (or mandated ratepayer spending) to subsidize the sale of RE equipment in the US. To quote from the executive summary:
This report documents the dawning of a new worldwide industry—clean energy—which has experienced investment growth of 230 percent since 2005. Demonstrating its strength, the clean energy sector declined only 6.6 percent in 2009 despite the worst financial downturn in over half a century. In 2009, $162 billion was invested in clean energy around the world. …

Within the G-20, our research finds that domestic policy decisions impact the competitive positions of member countries. Those nations—such as China, Brazil, the United Kingdom, Germany and Spain—with strong, national policies aimed at reducing global warming pollution and incentivizing the use of renewable energy are establishing stronger competitive positions in the clean energy economy. …

There are reasons to be concerned about America’s competitive position in the clean energy marketplace.

Relative to the size of its economy, the United States’ clean energy finance and investments lag behind many of its G-20 partners. For example, in relative terms, Spain invested five times more than the United States last year, and China, Brazil and the United Kingdom invested three times more. In all, 10 G-20 members devoted a greater percentage of gross domestic product to clean energy than the United States in 2009. Finally, the Unites States is on the verge of losing its leadership position in installed renewable energy capacity, with China surging in the last several years to a virtual tie.

The U.S. policy framework for reducing global warming pollution and promoting renewable energy remains uncertain, with comprehensive legislation stalled in Congress. On the other hand, America’s entrepreneurial traditions and strengths in innovation—especially its leadership in venture capital investing—are considerable, giving it the potential to recoup leadership and market share in the future.

Policy, investment and business experts alike have noted that the clean energy economy is emerging as one of the great global economic and environmental opportunities of the 21st century. …

Nations seeking to compete effectively for clean energy jobs and manufacturing would do well to evaluate the array of policy mechanisms that can be employed to stimulate clean energy investment. This is especially true for policymakers in the United States, which is at risk of falling further behind its G-20 competitors in the coming years unless it adopts a strong national policy framework to spur more robust clean energy investment.
In other words, the Pew argument is that there is a “race” and the US is losing. This is a proven rhetorical device: The “missile gap” was used during the Eisenhower administration and the Space Race during four administrations to build support for massive Federal spending on aerospace technology.

But perhaps the argument is less effective today. Some of a libertarian bent would argue against Pew by saying (roughly) “if other countries want to waste their money renewable energy, let ’em.” This is probably preaching to the choir — those who buy this argument weren’t going to listen to Pew and vice versa.

My own concern is: is it reasonable to believe that US mandates for RE will create jobs and a self-sustaining US industry? The success of Vesta and other Danish wind turbine companies is the best case. The NYT reported Wednesday about similar hopes by Silicon Valley companies using advanced technology to efforts to keep up with Chinese manufacturing costs.

Worst case is the ongoing collapse of the German solar industry (after years of the world’s best solar incentives). Another is the one-way shift of solar jobs by US designers to Chinese factories — in parallel to most other medium-technology manufacturing moving to China or other offshore locations.

But suppose we can win the race: Should we? The leading academic journal on innovation policy, Research Policy, ran a series of four articles this month on how innovation policy should respond to the global warming threat. The lead article by three of the world’s leading innovation economists emphasized the broad dissemination of clean energy technology to reduce global carbon emissions rather than hoarding to help domestic energy producers:
In recent years, the threat of global climate change has come to be seen as one of the most serious confronting humanity. To meet this challenge will require the development of new technologies and the substantial improvement of existing ones, as well as ensuring their prompt and widespread deployment.

Combating global warming, as we noted earlier, requires that technological solutions be deployed on a global scale as soon as possible. … Much more than “technology transfer” will be required, although support for the global dissemination of information and, potentially, subsidies for other nations to stimulate the adoption of technological solutions may be important parts of the international scope of such a program.
To put it in plain English: technological solutions to climate change must be shared and perhaps even subsidized for the rest of the world.

So for any US policy, I see at least a four-way tug-of-war of competing goals: helping the business growth and profits of US companies, providing US jobs, spending government (or ratepayer) money most efficiently, and saving the planet. When the US DoD invented the Internet we could have all four, but that outcome seems unlikely for today’s challenges due to both the capital investment and large number of foreign competitors and countries chasing these same clean energy jobs.

I don’t know which goal (or goals) will win out, and without knowing the specifics I can’t personally say which one should win out.


David C. Mowery, Richard R. Nelson, Ben R. Martin, “Technology policy and global warming: Why new policy models are needed (or why putting new wine in old bottles won’t work),” Research Policy, Volume 39, Issue 8, (October 2010), Pages 1011-1023. doi: 10.1016/j.respol.2010.05.008

Pew Charitable Trusts, “Who's Winning the Clean Energy Race? Growth, Competition and Opportunity in the World’s Largest Economies,” Pew Charitable Trusts, March 2010

1 comment:

Joel West said...

Apparently Energy Secretary Steven Chu didn’t get the memo:

Energy Secretary Steven Chu would like China to invest in America’s green future, not own it. But to challenge China’s growing lead in solar power, wind power, advanced batteries and grid technologies, the U.S. may have to boost its support of homegrown technologies.