U.S. Green Energy: Sizzle? … or Fizzle?

Impending doom for Green Energy?  The economic model isn't working.Tempting as it may be to dismiss Solyndra, Solar Power, Beacon Energy, SpectraWatt and other recent horror stories regarding “energy subsidies gone bad” as just examples of governmental ineptitude resulting from overly exuberant ideological thinking coupled with political favoritism … it turns out that these events are also emblematic of a much more fundamental challenge to green energy prospects.

A report released last week warning of problems on the horizon for green energy bears this out. The report, titled “Beyond Boom and Bust,” is a collaborative effort between the Brookings Institution, the Breakthrough Institute and the World Resources Institute (WRI), and was authored by six researchers associated with these organizations.

According to the report, the federal government’s involvement in the renewable energy marketplace has led to an unsustainable system. Among the study’s key conclusions are these eye-opening points:

 Nearly all “clean” tech segments in the U.S. remain reliant on production and deployment subsidies or other policies designed to facilitate gaining an expanding foothold in today’s energy market.

 Many of the nearly 100 individual policies and subsidies that undergird clean energy – grants, tax credits, loan guarantees and the like – are getting ready to expire, with the potential for dire consequences. To illustrate: Total federal spending on the clean tech sector was more than $44 billion in 2009, but would shrink to only ~$11 billion in 2014.

 In the absence of legislation to extend or replace current green energy subsidies, America’s clean tech policy system will be largely dismantled as of the beginning of 2015 because of the scheduled expiration of ~70% of the policy provisions.

In the current political and legislative climate, it’s doubtful that many of the current policies can be expanded or replaced. And even if this could happen, the report sheds doubt on whether such policies can be successful:

“The maintenance of perpetual subsidies is not a sustainable solution to the new challenges facing the U.S. clean tech industry. Clean tech markets in America have lurched from boom to bust for decades, and the root cause remains the same: the higher costs and risks of emerging U.S. clean tech products relative to either incumbent fossil energy technologies or lower-cost international competitors, which makes U.S. clean tech sectors dependent on subsidy and policy support.”

The report makes a number of recommendations for ushering in a “new era” of clean energy policy. Among these are:

 Foster establishment of a competitive market – development policies should create market opportunities for advanced clean energy technologies while fostering competition between technology firms.

 Create market incentives that demand and reward continuing improvement in technology performance and cost.

 Avoid technology lockout and promote a diverse energy portfolio.

Also, the authors emphasize the need for a “new national conversation” to determine the best route forward to accelerate technology improvements and cost reductions in clean tech sectors.

It would be nice if that conversation could start right now. But in an election year … don’t bank on it.