Another Close Call

It is a wonder that the wind industry is not only surviving attacks from the political right and its wealthy supporters but is doing remarkably well under the circumstances.

In the recent battles over the “fiscal cliff” the relatively meager subsidies from the Federal government barely escaped the sharp knife that is constantly wielded by those who would prefer to see the country go the way of Big Oil. In fact, there has been an ongoing battle against alternative energy funded by an array of opposition groups supported by billionaire oilmen Charles and David Koch. This movement hides behind such seemingly respectable names as the “Manhattan Institute” and the “American Energy Alliance” and is geared toward promoting the agenda of Big Oil and bringing the growth of clean energy to a halt — regardless of how many lies and deceptions it requires.

Australian Canunda Wind Farm. South Australia         (Wikipedia)

Australian Canunda Wind Farm. South Australia (Wikipedia)

One such lie is that wind energy will not really help climate change. In fact, as we can read in this month’s Sierra magazine, “the Renewable Energy Laboratory says otherwise, finding that every gigawatt of wind power annually offsets 2.6 million tons of CO2. The Department of Energy estimates that if the United States could generate 20 percent of its power through wind by 2030 it would eliminate 825 million tons of green house emissions.”

In their attempt to shut down the clean energy movement, the Koch brothers have put pressure on Congress to eliminate the subsidies that were initiated by President George H.W. Bush and are essential for any industry starting up. For example, while the clean energy industry must beg for renewals of Federal subsidies on a year-to-year basis, the oil industry has enjoyed guaranteed subsidies for many years: between 2002 and 2008 these subsidies for Big Oil amounted to $70.2 billion while a mere $12.2 billion went to all renewables combined.

Fearing the discontinuance of subsidies during the recent fiscal cliff fiasco, the wind energy industry, which previously employed 75,000 people, had to lay off hundreds of employees while the near-miss spooked investors, slowed down production, and brought new wind farm projects to a grinding halt. As mentioned above, it is remarkable that the industry has survived at all. Given the serious need for alternative energies to offset our reliance on foreign oil, not to mention the need to save the planet, one can only wonder how successful this country might be if the Congress had given clean energy the sort of support the fossil fuel industries have enjoyed in the past.

Because of wind energy’s close call this past year and the slow-down that followed, 2013 will not be as remarkable a year for clean energy as was 2012. But since the tax credits will be extended beyond this year for projects started this year, 2014 promises to be a much better year. Now, if only the Congress would make a ten-year commitment, as they have done with Big Oil, things would really start to take off. We might even catch up with Germany and China.

But I do believe that the will and determination to reverse the current trend is there and that it will eventually win out. It’s just a question of time. But that time is running out and it would come so much faster if people like the Koch brothers were to wake up, realize that theirs is a finite resource and that clean energy can not only create thousands of jobs — as it has already shown — but also make the investors a ton of money. Just ask smart investors like Warren Buffett, T. Boone Pickens, and Al Gore.

No Surprise Here

It appears as though Congress is getting cold feet on the gun control issue. Pro-gun advocates in Washington were positively gloating on the talk shows on Sunday as they predicted that the Congress will come up empty on the issue of stricter gun laws– with the possible exception of more thorough background checks on prospective buyers of guns in the future. Even the relatively innocuous issue of high-capacity cartridge magazines seems doomed to be bypassed. As a recent Yahoo News story relates

Nearly a month after the massacre of 27 people in Newtown, Conn., lawmakers on Capitol Hill are dialing back expectations on what Congress can – or should – do on its own to curb gun violence.

After initial expressions of outrage, lawmakers and the White House are getting down to counting votes on what can actually be achieved on Capitol Hill, where limits on gun rights have has been a taboo for more than a decade.

What has happened is that the memories of the terrible events in Newtown, Connecticut have faded and the muscle of the NRA, which brags 100,000 brand spanking new members, has grown. Consequently the Congress has decided in its wisdom that, barring an executive order (which seems doubtful), things had better stay pretty much as they are. Even Vice President Joe Biden’s recent recommendations to lawmakers which are said to leave out of consideration the dreaded assault weapons will be weakened even further. And this despite the fact that the President recently proclaimed that no weapons should be left out of consideration.

The real problem here, of course, is that Congress really doesn’t worry about doing the right thing any more — if they ever did. They worry about re-election and they recall the gun legislation of 1994 after which the Democrats who supported that legislation were voted out of office as the Republicans assumed the majority; later Al Gore was defeated in his attempt to win the White House — with many thanks to the power of the NRA that went after the dirty Democrats for having the audacity to vote for stricter gun laws. This Congress has apparently decided — if the votes have been counted correctly — not to make the same mistake twice.

As the economist Joseph Schumpeter noted long ago, what it really comes down to is that we are dealing with professional politicians whose only concern is with winning votes and staying in office. They aren’t any good at doing much else and they know they have a good thing going in a job that requires no positive results. It’s all about self-interest: the hell with the “common good”; it’s a dated notion anyway. I am sure I am not the only one who has received phone calls requesting money for a Senator who will run again in two years. Two Years, for goodness sake!

Don’t get me wrong. I am not in a position to question the courage of members of this Congress. I am scared to death of one gun, much less 5 million of them — which the NRA boasts is its membership. In any event, the Congress will make the prudent choice and veer away from the moral high ground once again as the memories of the dead children in Sandy Hook School fade and the fat-cats who manufacture guns and support the NRA sit and gloat while their membership grows, their profits rise, and fearful people buy more of their weapons while they continue to threaten recalcitrant politicians with removal from office. It’s called “real-life politics, circa 2013” and it stinks.

A Pleasant Surprise

It was surprising to read last week that the United States is vying with Saudi Arabia to lead the world in oil production. Surprising but also a reflection of our insatiable thirst for oil and other fossil fuels and our blind determination to do whatever it takes to extract oil, gas,  and coal from the earth. But after attempting to digest that news, it was even more surprising to read the delightful news that Saudi Arabia plans to focus its attention at home on renewable energy — clean energy (if we allow that nuclear is “clean.”) A recent story begins as follows:

Earlier this week, Prince Turki Al Faisal Al Saud, a top spokesperson for Saudi Arabia, said that Saudi Arabia intends to generate 100 percent of its power from renewable sources, such as nuclear, solar, and low-carbon energies.

“Oil is more precious for us underground than as a fuel source,” said the prince, whose country holds approximately 20 percent of the world’s oil reserves, according to the International Energy Agency. “If we can get to the point where we can replace fossil fuels and use oil to produce other products that are useful, that would be very good for the world.”

Nuclear energy is certainly not “renewable” by any stretch of the term. And one could argue that it is not “clean” either; despite the fact that it produces little in the way of greenhouse gasses it nonetheless produces highly toxic waste that we do not seem to be able to hide anywhere (a situation that recently led the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to order the cessation of licensing of new generating plants until further notice). And there is always the danger of a nuclear accident, as we saw recently in Japan.

But putting that aside, we must applaud a nation that sets an example for a world that is currently busy making that nation very wealthy. Given that many in our Congress are reluctant to even admit that global warming is a reality, one might hope that this example from one of our Middle-Eastern friends will have a positive effect on even the thickest skull in Washington. Further, one might dare hope that the oil and gas companies in this country will now read the handwriting on the wall and get on the renewable energy bandwagon and invest some of their huge profits and their considerable political influence in Washington (which is directly tied to their huge profits, of course) to the cause of clean energy. It is the wave of the future, whether or not they admit it.

There are small clean energy steps being taken by various state legislatures around the country and bold investors such as Warren Buffet and T. Boone Pickens. But the Congress has yet to get solidly behind the clean energy movement despite the studies showing that jobs can be created and a weak economy boosted by investing in alternative energy — and there is money to be made, as Al Gore has learned. Fossil fuels, to state the obvious, are a finite resource and at some point we will be forced to “go green.” Better sooner than later for the planet’s sake.

Al Is Green

Al Gore puts his money where his mouth is and it has made him a very wealthy man. The Washington Post recently reported that his net worth these days is around $100 million — 50 times what it was after leaving the office of Vice President — mostly as a result of investments in clean energy. This gives the lie to those nay-sayers who insist that investing in clean energy will not pay dividends and that the government should ignore clean energy and continue to pursue such projects as the Keystone Oil pipeline while maintaining the $4 billion a year in tax subsidies to Big Oil.

Not only has Gore made it big investing in clean energy, others have as well — as the Huff Post reported recently:

Gore isn’t the only one who’s betting on green energy. The United States invested $51 billion in renewable energy in 2011, second only to China in a year where green investments hit a record high.

He also has to thank the Obama administration’s 2009 stimulus package. The $80 to $90 billion worth of government investment in green energy has helped to grow many of the companies Gore and his renewable energy-based hedge fund Generation Investment Management have put the majority of their money in. In fact, nine of 11 companies that Gore endorsed during a 2008 presentation on fighting climate change received government investment, WaPo reports.

There have been failures in the clean energy field, of course, and these have been the focus of comments made during the current presidential campaign by Mitt Romney. Romney would also like to reduce or eliminate altogether future government investments in clean energy in spite of the fact that they are clearly paying off.

But the success rate of renewable energy companies may be far higher than some, particularly Presidential candidate Mitt Romney, would like to admit. During the first Presidential debate, Romney claimed that over half the green energy companies benefitting from stimulus dollars failed. In fact, just 1.4 percent of the U.S. dollars invested in green energy went to companies that had failed by the end of 2011, CleanTechnica reports.

Romney, and others of his persuasion, would like to point to the failures — such as the solar energy company Solyndra which went belly up as a result of the availability of cheap solar panels made in China which the Obama administration finally stopped by imposing tariffs — though too late to save Solyndra. In any event, the success stories greatly outweigh the failures in spite if what Mitt would have us believe.

The stimulus packages clearly help bring money into the clean energy industry, but why don’t both sides of the political aisle get foursquare behind the clean energy movement, help create jobs, boost the economy, and head in the direction of countries like Germany which will be nuclear and coal free within a few years? The answer requires some speculation, but it is fairly clear that the companies that make huge profits from the continued use of fossil fuels would prefer that we not wean ourselves from those sources of energy (despite the damage we are doing to the environment and the planet itself) and they pour large amounts of money into the pockets of politicians to see to it that it doesn’t happen. But the success stories continue to pop up from time to time and people like Al Gore still believe and their belief is clearly paying off.