Friday, August 19, 2011

Green Jobs Cheerleaders Begin to Lose Faith

This article in the Bay Citizen makes us feel like prophets. Apparently, even the Bay Area liberals who have cheered most vocally on behalf of remaking California's economy into a renewable-energy paradise are echoing what we've been saying since April: sucking money out of the private economy and using it to subsidize unproven technologies on a massive scale was bound to end in tears. With California limping along at 12% unemployment and millions in taxpayer funds lost to con men, other states, and unworkable technologies, Van Jones' dream of recreating America's industrial heyday with green jobs is looking more like a fantasy than ever.

At this point, the evidence is piling up so quickly that not even the Bay Citizen can ignore it. Forget about the disastrous experience in Spain for a moment; the disaster in California has been bad enough. The city of San Jose, in the heart of Silicon Valley, has set a goal of having 25,000 green jobs by 2022; currently, it has only 4,350. In the broader Valley, which has seen booming job growth recently, green jobs only account for 2.2% of employment. Rather than adding jobs, the green sector actually shrank in the South Bay from 2003 to 2010. What's more, two years after the Golden State got $186 million in federal stimulus money for weatherizing homes, only half the money has been spent and only 538 jobs created. In other words, each of those jobs cost about $173,000 to create, and homeowner resistance to its up-front costs has generally made the program a failure. Then there's job training. California has already poured $59 million in public and private money into green jobs training; these programs have led to just 719 job placements, many of them in related trades outside the renewable-energy sector. Advocates like Jones, of course, blame Washington for failing to impose "market mechanisms" like cap and trade.

None of this, of course, should be a surprise, as the technologies supposed to create this new economy can charitably be described as "not ready for prime time." Part of this is the state of the technology. "Backup generation" methods for solar and wind power simply don't exist yet; in other words, you can't hold these forms of power on stand-by like you can with coal and natural gas, so without a sunny or windy day, you don't have power. And there's currently nothing like a battery that can store these forms of power. But part of the problem also concerns the inherent limitations of wind and solar. Put simply, they're very diffuse, and they only work in certain places: you need to devote immense amounts of land and materials to get them going, and few locations are suitable for large-scale generation. Relative to gas-fired electricity, this makes them far less efficient and more costly. And there just isn't a lot of land that's (a) sufficiently close to lots of ratepayers and (b) suitable for generating wind and solar energy. (The Antelope Valley would be an exception, but it's hardly big enough to power Los Angeles.) Green-energy advocates have been trying to wish these things away, but the reality is finally starting to become impossible to ignore.


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