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The Collapsing Case for ‘Green’ Energy (Berkeley’s Borenstein on an intellectual wrong turn )

“Advocates of renewable energy feel cornered by the gridlock in Congress and waning interest in climate change. But arguing that renewable energy is the best way to address economic or security concerns isn’t the way to prevail. It just focuses the debate on issues where fossil fuels are almost sure to win.”

- Severin Borenstein, “Making the Wrong Case for Renewable Energy,” Bloomberg, February 13, 2012.

Severin Borenstein, Professor of Business and Public Policy at the University of California at Berkeley, and director of the U.C. Energy Institute, is firmly in the camp of climate alarmism and public policy activism. In a recent op-ed,  Borenstein argues that, absent the climate-change argument, the environmentalists are intellectually adrift trying to argue for their (politically correct) renewable energies–wind and solar (but not ethanol and hydroelectricity, mind you). 

Left environmentalists are in a predicament trying to converse with a public that is fatigued about climate change and is interested in affordable energy and economic prosperity. And it brings to mind what Tim Wirth, now with the United Nations Foundation but then Undersecretary of State for Global Affairs with the Clinton Administration, said back in 1990:

We’ve got to ride this global warming issue. Even if the theory of global warming is wrong, we will be doing the right thing in terms of economic and environmental policy.

The problem, however, is bigger than Borenstein lets on given 1) a slowdown in real-world warming; 2) growing interest in/explanation of global lukewarming; and 3) the need to move toward adaptation (instead of mitigation) as greenhouse-gas concentrations grow in the atmosphere. Still, Borenstein’s points are valid as far as they go.

Key excerpts from Borenstein’s recent Bloomberg op-ed follow:

… Democrats, including President Barack Obama, have stopped talking about [climate change]. Their energy proposals now target lower costs, energy security and job creation from domestic production…. [T]hey are betting they can push the climate agenda indirectly, by focusing on renewable energy as the solution to other problems.

It’s a bad bet and likely to backfire. The U.S. needs to invest in renewable energy, but not because that would be a good way to address energy security, affordability or unemployment.

While it’s tempting to roll all our energy challenges into one, the problems and the solutions are numerous and distinct. If your goal is just to maintain moderate energy costs or achieve greater energy security, your friendly neighborhood fossil-fuel producers have the answers.

Domestic coal is cheap and plentiful, and likely to remain so for centuries. Natural gas is more abundant by the month. With new drilling technologies, there probably is enough moderately priced domestic gas to last for decades.

Similar new techniques are even improving U.S. oil production. More than half of the oil we use is now produced domestically and that share is likely to rise over the next decade. Technologies for converting coal and natural gas to a gasoline equivalent are also advancing.

Sure, the cost of low-carbon energy technologies — wind, solar, biofuels and others — is coming down. But … the most likely scenario is that domestically produced fossil fuels will be the lowest-cost way to meet most of our energy needs and achieve greater energy security for years to come.

The employment argument also falls short. During a recession, it makes sense for the government to promote job creation with subsidies and federal expenditures, some of which may be targeted at specific industries.

In the longer run, however, economists are almost unanimous that the economy creates more and better jobs when companies operate in the most cost-effective way. If we don’t count the cost of environmental damage, that’s likely to mean carbon-based energy for generations.

Some politicians argue that the government needs to invest in alternative energy because it’s the next economic frontier. The evidence doesn’t suggest such initiatives build a sustainable industry. In Spain, renewables took off during the last decade, but the industry crumbled in 2009 when subsidies were halted during the country’s fiscal crunch.

Germany made a big push in solar photovoltaic technology with subsidies more than five times the cost of conventional power generation, and manufacturing of PV systems exploded. Then China got into solar-panel production and German firms’ share of domestic PV sales fell to 27 percent in 2010, from 77 percent in 2008….

What once was bipartisan agreement on the need to reduce greenhouse gases has been recast as a political food fight. Advocates of renewable energy feel cornered by the gridlock in Congress and waning interest in climate change. But arguing that renewable energy is the best way to address economic or security concerns isn’t the way to prevail. It just focuses the debate on issues where fossil fuels are almost sure to win.

There is no mystery why neo-Malthusians grabbed onto climate alarmism early on and have not let go. Now, as then, climate alarmism is the last stand of neo-Malthusianism.

6 comments

1 Tom Tanton { 02.22.12 at 6:48 am }

As I’ve said for years, renewables and their subsidies are much like the kiddies’ arcade game of “bop the mole.” Every time one ‘rationale’ for subsidy or mandate (unfortunately too often both at the same time) is shown to be an utter sham, up pop another faux-rationale. When do the quarters run out?

2 Jon Boone { 02.22.12 at 12:26 pm }

“The U.S. needs to invest in renewable energy….”

Until people like Borenstein understand how hyperbolic and wrong-headed such statements are, renewables hucksters will be at work fleecing rate and taxpayers. We “need” to be investing in renewables about as much as we need to be investing in phlogiston. Or silly putty.

3 MarkB { 02.22.12 at 1:46 pm }

As soon as cap and trade went down, people like Roger Pielke Jr shifted over to the ‘jobs and security and pollution’ scam. What’s amazing is that they actually said explicitly that in order to further their global warming goals, they would just shift their language. If they were going to pull such a scam, you’d thing they’d have the good sense to try to hide it from sight.

4 NickB { 04.11.12 at 5:46 pm }

Maybe I missed it, but you don’t actually address the possibility that the climate change “alarmists” are right. In that camp, it seems to me, is just about every bona fide respectable scientific body there is.

5 rbradley { 04.11.12 at 5:54 pm }

NickB:

A couple of responses. Google Chip Knappenberger and ‘lukwarming’ to see the case of low-end AGW. It looks like the high positive feedback effects driving high sensitivity models is not the case (thankfully).

Since U.S. action will not have a measurable effect on climate from the models’ viewpoint out 50 or 100 years (again see Knappenberger), it seems as if it is time to shift from mitigation to adaptation even from an alarmist perspective.

6 psentiente { 04.27.12 at 9:57 am }

“The employment argument also falls short. During a recession, it makes sense for the government to promote job creation with subsidies and federal expenditures, some of which may be targeted at specific industries.” Here’s an environmentalist pretending he’s an economist. During a recession, it only makes sense for government to cut taxes and slash spending. Not a surprising gaffe for a statist.

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