Imposing Renewable Energy Won’t Work

(This commentary appeared in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s ‘Atlanta Forward’ of March 7, 2013)

Benita Dodd Vice President, Georgia Public Policy Foundation

Benita Dodd
Vice President, Georgia Public Policy Foundation

By Benita M. Dodd

If at first you don’t succeed try, try again, goes the saying. Watching environmental groups eroding sound energy policy through death by a thousand cuts is a strong reminder.

For years, alternative energy was promoted as preparation for “peak” oil. Domestic energy exploration was hindered to “protect the land.” Air and water pollution were cited to demonize coal. Then global warming/climate change was the reason to reduce coal and petroleum use.

Policy-makers concerned about national security were urged to achieve energy independence, with no regard for how global markets operate. In this, biofuel profiteers have been complicit and protectionist. State governments were pressed to mandate energy portfolios with a percentage of renewable energy including wind, solar and biomass. The pot was sweetened with tax credits, subsidies, grants and rebates, all at taxpayer expense.

Georgia has wisely resisted such mandates. But more recently, a new strategy has become clear: the call for legislators to embrace alternative energy sources because, “It’s good for the economy and the right thing to do.”

In a struggling economy where job creation is important, legislators may just fall for this new “moral” argument. But it’s as unpredictable as the future of renewable energy. Why? First, peak oil arguments were soundly defeated by recent discoveries of vast resources of domestic shale gas – in fact, current recoverable gas provides enough for at least the next 100 years. Technological advances are certain to improve upon that estimate.

Air quality has improved even as energy use increased: Between 1980 and 2011, GDP increased 128 percent, vehicle miles traveled increased 94 percent, energy consumption increased 26 percent and the U.S. population grew 37 percent. During that period, total emissions of the six principal air pollutants dropped by 63 percent. While carbon dioxide emissions increased 21 percent between 1980 and 2010, the CO2 energy-related emissions are expected to decline to 5 percent below 2005 levels by 2040, according to the Energy Information Administration. That’s largely thanks to better cars and more (cleaner, shale) natural gas energy.

The moral “justification” includes job creation. That hasn’t worked in Spain, where a 2010 study found that for each green job financed by Spanish taxpayers, 2.2 real jobs were lost as an opportunity cost, and that nine out of 10 green jobs created over the 10 years previous no longer existed. It hasn’t worked in Germany, whose 80 percent renewable goal is proving so unaffordable that manufacturing industries – and their jobs – are leaving the country.

Meanwhile, other countries are expanding their economies, using or extracting fossil fuels with far less regard for the environment. Europe is using the demonized coal exported from the United States. And the U.S. government is ignoring Canada’s Keystone oil pipeline, a responsible project that could create thousands of ongoing jobs here.

Imposing renewable energy upon Georgia’s taxpayers raises the cost of living, taking dollars out of citizens’ pockets that they could use to buy a newer, cleaner car, a better home, a better education that can raise their standard of living or help clothe and feed their children. It is hardly moral to rob Americans of that ability by forcing costlier energy upon them.

The right thing to is for government to allow the ingenuity of Americans continue to create an affordable, reliable energy mix, not legislate on the basis of “morality” agendas of a vocal minority.