The green-jobs revolution may be going up in smoke.
Despite billions of dollars in federal investment and cheerleading from President Obama, even the most ardent supporters of a transformed, job-generating energy sector based largely on wind, solar and other renewable sources acknowledge that their dreams have not translated into reality. The records for other countries chasing green employment opportunities have been equally unimpressive.
Rep. Maxine Waters, California Democrat, told MSNBC last month that, despite impassioned support from liberal Democrats and environmentalists, “green jobs” initiatives “have been about a lot of talk, and not a lot has been happening on that.”
The absence of a promised boom in environmental jobs has become a talking point among Republicans who are campaigning to unseat Mr. Obama in the 2012 election.
Mr. Obama “keeps talking about green jobs,” former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney said during the GOP candidates debate Wednesday night. “Where are they? Let’s have real jobs.”
Talk of green jobs was conspicuous by its absence from Mr. Obama’s jobs speech to a joint session of Congress on Thursday night. He gave the address on the same day that the FBI raided California solar-energy company Solyndra, which filed for bankruptcy and laid off at least 900 full-time employees.
Two years ago, Solyndra was awarded a $535 million federal government loan as part of Mr. Obama’s stimulus package. It is unclear how — or whether — the company will repay its debt or whether it will leave American taxpayers holding the bag. A House committee has scheduled a hearing this week to look into the investment.
Solyndra was the latest in a string of solar bankruptcies this year. Others are New York-based SpectraWatt and Michigan’s Evergreen Solar.
Critics aren’t surprised. Spain and other European countries have embraced green-jobs programs only to see higher-than-expected costs and little payoff. A 2009 study by Madrid’s King Juan Carlos University found that the creation of every green job eliminated at least 2.2 jobs in other industries, the result of a government push toward wind and solar power at the expense of other fuels.
Some traditional-fuel companies left the country in favor of more level playing fields elsewhere, the report says.
“But amazingly enough, this debate is not over,” said Daniel Kish, senior vice president for policy at the Institute for Energy Research, a nonprofit energy-research organization. Mr. Kish also served more than 25 years on various congressional committees that deal with energy, including six years as chief of staff for Republicans on the House Natural Resources Committee.
Mr. Kish and many others think large-scale wind and solar projects are inherently unprofitable, largely as a result of the unpredictability of when the sun will shine brightly enough and when the wind will blow. Without government subsidies, he said, such projects would have no chance of competing with oil, natural gas, nuclear power or coal.
“This is a government-created bubble. I don’t blame the companies trying to rip off the government. What I blame are politicians who refuse to look at the facts,” he said.
Those facts, however, aren’t always easy to discern. Both sides of the argument point to a dizzying array of numbers, charts, graphs and price figures to support their points of view. Environmental groups and wind and solar proponents strongly dispute the King Juan Carlos study and have accused its author, Dr. Gabriel Calzada, of distorting the truth.
Seth Masia, deputy editor of Solar Today, a publication of the American Solar Energy Society, told The Washington Times that solar-panel installations grew 113 percent last year and the industry expects to expand 5.7 percent to 40 percent each year through 2020. The wind industry has grown more than 10 percent annually for the past five years, according to the American Wind Energy Association. It now has manufacturing facilities in 43 states, and the U.S. has gone from producing 25 percent of turbines used domestically to 60 percent in the past several years, said Robert Gramlich, the association’s senior vice president of public policy.
Proponents laud the number of jobs created.
Complicating the debate is that there is no universally accepted definition of a “green job.” While most consider green jobs to be those in the wind or solar industry, Mr. Kish said, some estimates include garbage collectors, pollution-control engineers and water and sewer workers in the equation.
“I’m not aware of any formal definition,” said Anastasia V. Shcherbakova, assistant professor of energy economics, risk and policy at Penn State University.
Renewable-energy proponents say their industries produce benefits beyond job creation. Mr. Gramlich pointed to the local property-tax revenue generated by wind farms, along with royalty payments to owners who lease land for the giant windmills.
In that regard, wind energy has something in common with the booming natural-gas industry, a sector that some decry as the antithesis of clean, renewable fuels. Mr. Gramlich, however, said he doesn’t view oil, gas or coal as the enemy.
“It’s clear that some view us as the threatening, disruptive competition, and they’re fighting us for that reason,” he said. “But we have a very large electricity portfolio with plenty of room for conventional and renewable sources. I don’t see why people are so scared.”
Solar and wind proponents deny that they are entirely dependent on federal investment — such as the $80 billion provided by the administration’s stimulus package — to make their products competitive in the marketplace.
“Our position is that if all subsidies for all forms of energy were eliminated this evening, solar and wind would do very well. Our fuel is free,” Mr. Masia said.
Given the nation’s fiscal crisis, those subsidies are likely to end sooner rather than later. Congress already voted to cut some federal aid to ethanol, and Republicans are eager to do the same with support for wind and solar power.
As with any other industry, Mr. Gramlich said, some companies will prosper and others, such as Solyndra, will end in failure. That will happen with or without federal subsidies, proponents say.
Critics, however, argue that many firms are well aware they can’t make a profit without government help and serve as little more than black holes for taxpayer money in the name of reducing carbon emissions.
Solar and wind “are not cheap,” Mr. Kish said. “They’re not reliable. And over the long run, frankly, they’re a drag on our economy and our way of life. By the time this is done, I would be very surprised if some people don’t end up behind bars.”
• Ben Wolfgang can be reached at email@example.com.
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