In the last year or so the rationale for renewable energy has evolved from emphasizing mainly energy security and climate change to focusing on the creation of "green jobs" and the development of an industry that many perceive as the "next big thing": a new global growth wave along the lines of information technology and telecoms. Unfortunately, neither of these newer justifications withstands serious scrutiny. I've devoted several postings to the shortcomings of the green jobs angle, which founders on the mistaken notion that we should want an energy sector any bigger than the minimum necessary to furnish the energy needed by the rest of the economy. The IT analogy looks harder to dismiss, because it capitalizes on our innate affinity for technology, the newer and trendier, the better. I share that bias and have been fascinated by the technology of alternative energy since my undergraduate years. Yet as inherently cool as the devices for deriving energy from wind, tides, solar radiation, biomass, and exotic forms of nuclear energy are, that doesn't automatically set them up to be the next world-transforming and wealth-creating industry in the manner of IT in the 1980s and '90s.
Understanding where this analogy fails requires delving into the drivers of the IT revolution. It wasn't just that technology was improving by the quantum leaps in processing power and decreased cost described by Moore's Law. Nor was it merely the result of nebulous "market forces", though the market's ability to deploy capital nimbly to the cleverest entrepreneurs helped a lot. Fundamentally, IT took off and continues to grow because it spurred breathtaking improvements in productivity and innovation, not just within the computer industry itself, but more importantly across the entire economy. IT enabled the automation of numerous manufacturing processes, the discovery and exploitation of vast new energy resources, and the launch and sustained growth of entirely new industries, including cellphones, personal electronics and the Internet. Yet while renewable energy holds great potential for reducing our emissions and our unhealthy reliance on imported oil, it cannot offer the kind of productivity revolution that IT delivered.
Start with the fact that most forms of alternative energy are still uneconomical without government incentives or mandates. If you doubt that, recall that new US installations of wind power, which is generally regarded as the most cost-competitive of the newer alternative energy technologies, were on the verge of grinding to a halt when it appeared that the Production Tax Credit might not be renewed at the end of 2008, and again when the markets for translating those tax credits on future earnings into current cash froze up earlier this year. The wind sector only revived when the government provided a substitute Investment Tax Credit and made it available in the form of direct grants from the Treasury.
Now, there's a strong argument that these incentives are necessary to compensate for the inherent advantages of fossil fuel-based power generation that doesn't pay for the environmental externalities it creates. However, that doesn't alter the fact that the expansion of this industry is not being driven by the underlying wealth-creating force of productivity improvements, but by government funding and regulations. Thus much of the growth of the alternative energy sector comes at the expense of other parts of the economy, or of larger deficits that impair the long-term health of the economy. That might be necessary, but it won't create vast new wealth in the way that IT did.
In fact, as long as wind, solar and other forms of renewable energy require government support or mandates such as Renewable Portfolio Standards to keep them growing, they will tend to reduce the overall productivity of the economy by embedding higher energy costs into everything we do, whether those costs are reflected directly in higher energy prices or indirectly in higher taxes or bigger deficits. Meanwhile, less glamorous technologies associated with energy efficiency offer genuine productivity improvements today and well into the future, though probably still on a smaller scale than those wrought by IT, since energy accounts for only about 8% of GDP. I'd put the electrification of transportation into this efficiency category, too, once the cost and capability of batteries improve enough to make them attractive without massive subsidies.
Renewable energy looks likely to continue its impressive growth, building new companies and making fortunes for some entrepreneurs. It has great potential to contribute an important share of our future energy mix. Unlike IT, however, this transformation will largely be limited to the energy sector, with relatively little impact beyond it. Devices that consume electricity won't run any better on green electrons than on any other kind, and engines won't suddenly begin performing at higher levels on renewable fuels--in fact, the opposite is often the case. So rather than sugar-coating the green energy proposition with inflated claims that are likely to lead to disappointment later, a dose of stoicism seems to be in order, here. If accelerating the growth of renewable energy is the right thing to do for the planet and for our energy security, and if its long-term benefits outweigh the costs, we should dispense with the hype suggesting it will make us all rich and just get on with it.