As I was catching up on recent op-eds in the New York Times, I was intrigued by one with the snappy title, "Red China, Green China." As the author, an "executive in residence at Columbia Business School," built his case for why the US is falling behind China in clean energy technology, I was hopeful that he'd offer some sensible recommendations for resolving the problems that have made it harder for the US to compete across a whole range of industries, not just cleantech. Unfortunately, two of his three suggestions were focused on measures to ensure a market for clean technology, and the third on R&D for carbon capture and storage. These are worthy goals, but there wasn't a word about making our manufacturing sector more competitive. That blind spot seems to be shared by the Department of Energy, which according to an article in MIT's Technology Review ran out of money for clean energy manufacturing tax credits, but spent more than $3 billion funding renewable energy projects, many of which are being built with imported hardware. If we're serious about competing in a global clean technology race, we've got our priorities backwards.
I must admit that I'm generally skeptical of anything that smacks of industrial policy. Industry has a mixed record at picking technologies in which to invest to create the industries of the future, but government is often worse. For example, does it really make sense to spend taxpayer money helping companies build factories to make batteries for electric vehicles that consumers haven't yet embraced, and that may only capture a small share of the total car market, similar to today's hybrids? However, this might still prove wiser than shoveling money at the deployment of green energy technologies that either don't need much assistance, or that haven't developed sufficiently to meet the needs of the economy.
It might also help to think about our competitiveness in cleantech from the perspective of the entire economy, rather than the usual practice of looking at it in isolation. From that vantage point, the main thing the economy needs from the energy sector is cheap and reliable supplies of the kinds of energy that we use: liquid fuels for transportation, gas for heat, and electricity for nearly everything else. Reliability was licked a long time ago--except for the occasional blackout--and renewables don't bring much to the table in this regard. For several of the most popular forms, such as wind and solar power, it's their weakest suit. As for cost, the price tag on wind capacity has come down significantly over the last couple of decades, and off-peak wind power is sometimes the cheapest supply available. That's still not true for solar, however, though solar thermal and some novel forms of photovoltaic cells have the potential to get there.
It's also important to recall that while we can employ subsidies or mandates to make renewables appear more competitive locally or to require their use, whether competitive or not, that doesn't alter their impact on the global competitiveness of the US economy. If we are embedding expensive energy at the heart of our manufacturing, services, transportation and distribution networks, then that must make us less competitive--unless everyone else is doing the same thing.
We should also be asking to what extent taxpayers (or ratepayers--often the same people) should subsidize the creation of a market for renewables. After all, the market already exists, and most of it is outside the US. The world apparently added 38,343 MW of new wind generating capacity last year, and only 26% of that was installed in the US. Instead of concluding that we should pay or require companies to install more wind turbines in the US, as Mr. Usher suggests in his op-ed, wouldn't it make more sense to help US wind turbine manufacturers become more competitive in the larger global market? That seems like an obvious conclusion, especially when we consider that US manufacturers accounted for less than half of the wind turbine capacity installed here last year, according to data from the American Wind Energy Association, and that the bulk of the Treasury grants issued under the stimulus have gone to non-US firms to develop wind farms equipped mainly with non-US turbines.
Nor would shifting our focus to supporting the production, rather than installation of cleantech hardware lessen the impact of US policy on reducing global greenhouse gas emissions. A wind turbine or solar panel generates emissions-free energy in any country in which it is sited, and it might even reduce more emissions if it were installed in a location where the generation source it backs out is an inefficient coal-fired power plant with minimal pollution controls, rather than an efficient gas turbine, as is often the case here.
Effective policy requires clear thinking. If we want to promote clean energy technology for reasons of job creation and global competitiveness, then shouldn't we focus our efforts where they can have the greatest positive impact on those priorities? Manufacturing is a strong candidate for that point of maximum leverage, while deployment suffers from many drawbacks, including "leakage" and higher costs that get passed on to other sectors of the economy. Whether our best approach to bolstering cleantech manufacturing is to single it out for special treatment or to focus on corporate tax reform and other measures that would help all manufacturing is a subject for another day.