As I was catching up on a large backlog of articles from December, I ran across one from the New York Times that dovetailed with my thoughts about trends to watch this year. It concerned the difficulties being experienced by US green energy companies, particularly relative to competitors operating in countries with more generous subsidies for renewable energy manufacturing and deployment. Instead of becoming progressively less dependent on help from the government, many of these firms are even more reliant on aid as a result of the financial crisis, which disrupted their access to credit and capital from the market. This is a worrying development, because it tends to shift the focus of management away from the attainment of operational excellence and profitable innovation, and toward the task of lining up a steady pipeline of government grants and tax credits. This might be necessary for the moment, but it undermines long-term competitiveness.
As I read the article, I was struck by some of the comments from industry executives, which included a complaint from the US arm of a Spanish wind turbine manufacturer about the lack of necessary legislative support for the industry, and this astonishing remark from a director of the Pew Charitable Trusts' Environment Group, "But if we don't have the policies in place to make investment here a sure thing, then we could potentially lose to other countries." I wasn't aware that it has ever been the proper role of government to ensure that any business is a "sure thing." And then there was a comment from the head of the Solar Energy Industries Association to the effect that the US would have a bigger solar sector if our incentives were more like those in China, where "80 percent of the entire cost of a factory and worker training is paid for by the government." No doubt.
There's something deeply corrosive about such attitudes, and they put anyone investing in renewable energy in a difficult position. Now, there's a strong argument that some level of government support is necessary to help renewable energy compete with traditional energy sources that operate in a market that doesn't account for significant externalities such as environmental and energy-security effects. That's one of the main arguments for establishing a cap & trade system for greenhouse gases, or a carbon tax. Yet we now see government not only helping to level the playing field by means of renewable energy tax credits for investment or production and mandates requiring a set percentage of energy to come from renewable sources, but also playing the role of venture capitalist and banker. These are roles for which government is ill-equipped, not least because the necessary Darwinian feedback mechanisms don't exist. A VC that consistently invests in impractical ideas or start-up firms with incompetent management will eventually run out of capital and close its doors; a government agency with a similarly poor track record will continue to be funded, and its employees will enjoy their customary job security.
Of course, renewable energy firms aren't the only ones to have enjoyed generous government support as a result of the stimulus and other measures put in place to address the recession and financial crisis. The key difference is that while the government has poured billions of dollars into banks and carmakers, no one doubts that well-run banks can function without government aid and that it's possible to make and sell cars at a profit in the US--Ford and several foreign carmakers with US factories prove that every day. Unfortunately, we don't know that it's possible to produce renewable energy or the hardware it requires without government support for users, producers, developers, manufacturers, or all of the above. That acts as a deterrent to established energy companies that have, through painful experience, acquired a jaundiced view of the long-term dependability of such support. Anyone questioning that view need only ask someone in the US biodiesel industry, which just lost its $1-per-gallon subsidy and now faces oblivion.
As necessary as the continued expansion of renewable energy sources is for our long-term transition away from fossil fuels and for reducing greenhouse gas emissions, I worry that the green energy sector has become caught up in an industrial policy fad that has little to do with either emissions or energy security, and that hinges on exaggerated expectations of cleantech as the next hugely-profitable global industry and massive provider of stable, high-income employment. Yet if that profitability is merely the result of a government-mediated transfer of wealth from consumers and taxpayers to a group of fortunate firms, rather than of improvements in productivity or pervasive new consumer values, then neither those profits nor the jobs that go with them will be sustainable. And sooner or later a government less committed to these subsidies, or more focused on reducing unmanageable deficits, will take office and the gravy train will end quite suddenly.
I'm not advocating abandoning the renewable energy sector to the tender mercies of the market overnight, or ceding this important sector entirely to non-US firms, nor am I ignoring the lessons of the last two years about markets. However, I'm also recalling the lessons of the Tech Bubble. At least until we have cap & trade or a carbon tax, some level of support will be necessary. However, it should be uniform, picking no winners and treating all low-emission BTUs and kWhs equally. It should also phase out on a reasonable but firmly-established timetable, so that companies know they must become truly competitive. And instead of extending the Treasury's renewable energy grant program beyond its current October 2011 deadline, the government should focus on enabling the restoration of the flows of private capital for which the grants are filling in--and inadvertently stifling in the meantime. Nor should we seek to emulate the foolishness of Germany's extravagantly-generous feed-in tariffs for solar power, which created a market for German manufacturers that is now being lost to foreign competitors with lower costs.
Our goal ought to be a renewable energy sector that can stand on its own, rather than one that, like the US ethanol industry, has been tethered to federal life-support since the precursor of today's Volumetric Excise Tax Credit was established in 1978. The result would likely yield fewer US renewable energy companies, but also stronger ones better able to survive the turbulent energy transition that lies ahead.