Should Ohio and the U.S. continue to invest in renewable energy? Since renewable energy is becoming increasingly cost-competitive on its own, do we have anything to gain by using public dollars and policies for incentives? The answer to both questions is a resounding “yes!”
There are many reasons why Ohio should directly encourage renewable energy by restoring and strengthening the Renewable Portfolio Standards, and also why the federal tax credits for renewable energy should be extended beyond 2016.
One reason is jobs. Solar, in particular, is a very labor-intensive industry, providing a larger number of jobs and using fewer resources. Installation labor cannot be outsourced. In the U.S. today, there are about the same number of direct solar jobs as there are direct coal jobs related to power production. This is in spite of the much greater amount of power currently being generated from coal. As solar becomes a larger and larger part of the market share, it will create tens of jobs for every job that is lost in the coal sector, and still be cheaper.
A second reason is commerce and competition. If the government does not provide incentives to renewable energy, the businesses will move and grow elsewhere, out of Ohio to neighboring states and out of the U.S. to China, India, Europe and Japan. In 2008 a strong bipartisan majority in the Ohio House passed Renewable Portfolio Standards for clean energy, but last year a different House “froze” those standards and created onerous setback rules for wind (but not for natural gas!). The result: $2 billion in wind investments were pulled immediately by wind developers.
A third reason involves a level playing field. Renewable energy subsidies have helped renewable energy to move past expensive development costs and to jump-start supporting businesses. As prices fall, the need for these subsidies will diminish and they should be phased out, as the fossil fuel subsidies should have been phased out. However, fossil fuel subsidies were never phased out. Direct fossil fuel subsidies in the U.S. amount to nearly $40 billion a year. Direct subsidies come in many forms, from tax and regulatory exemptions and below-market loans, to regulation and price controls, to funding for research and development and more.
When indirect costs and the costs of pollution are added, the International Monetary Fund reports annual U.S. fossil-fuel subsidies to be $699 billion! (There is debate among experts as to what constitutes a subsidy, but realistic positions would not question a significant part of this. What remains is still an unbelievably large number.) Solar and wind subsidies are a drop in the bucket by comparison. To allow the market to work freely, we must either help the renewable energy industries, or remove help for the obsolete competition. Do both and you can solve environmental problems and improve commerce and still save tax dollars.
A fourth reason is greenhouse gas emissions. Solar and wind produce none. Fossil fuels, well … The sooner we reduce and then eliminate carbon emissions, the better our climate can be.
Any process that causes the market price of fossil fuels to reflect their true, unsubsidized cost will accelerate the adoption of cleaner forms of energy. Efforts made locally can stimulate local economies. National efforts can help our national economy. One national-level method proposed by the Citizens Climate Lobby is a revenue-neutral carbon fee at the point of extraction that produces a dividend to be distributed to the public. For details on this proposal, visit citizensclimatelobby.org.
The notion that rapidly ending our dependence on fossil fuels will harm our economy is a fossil fuel lobby-perpetuated myth. In fact, the opposite is true. Clean, renewable energy is ready today to fill the gap, and numerous studies show it will actually grow the economy. Let’s do it.
David W. Carpenter is a member of the American Solar Energy Society, Green Energy Ohio and the Citizens Climate Lobby. He has a bachelor’s degree in physics and a master’s in math and physics education, both from Ohio State University. He spent five years as a research scientist/engineer at Battelle Labs before teaching high school physics for 30 years. His house has been solar-powered for nearly 10 years.