SOTU Watch: Energy Claims

by Iain Murray on February 24, 2009

in Blog

The President might make various remarks relating to energy tonight. These are likely to center around grandiloquent claims as to the effectiveness of “green jobs” and alternative energy in saving the economy, not to mention the planet. Here are a few notes on the reality of these claims.

Green Jobs: The President will probably claim to be creating millions of “green jobs” to save the economy, fight global warming and end dependence on foreign oil together. In fact, “green jobs” have a number of problems, outlined in my Examiner piece from yesterday. To summarize:
• “Green jobs” come at the expense of traditional energy jobs. At the moment, the wind industry employs 85,000 people in all its facets (including support staff and suppliers). The coal industry employs 81,000 miners alone, and probably over 1.4 million in all, including support staff and suppliers.
• “Green jobs” are more expensive to society in general. Those 85,000 people in the wind industry contribute to the generation of just 1.3 million MegaWatt-hours of electricity, while the coal industry generates 155 million MWh, making each coal industry job seven times more productive than a wind industry job. The difference in cost is born by the rest of us.
• “Green jobs” are mostly low-paid and transitory, according to a recent report by, among others, The Sierra Club and the Teamsters union.
• A German government report found that “green jobs” are only beneficial to the economy as long as Germany remains a net exporter of green technology and power. As soon as other countries utilize their comparative advantages in manufacture and power generation, “green jobs” become a drain on an advanced economy.
• Most “green jobs” are related to the generation of electricity, which is not used to power cars yet, and so do nothing to lower our “dependence” on foreign oil (and most oil we use comes from the US and Canada in any event).

Alternative Energy: The President may repeat his promise to double the use of alternative energy, again claiming effects in terms of climate and energy independence. This claim is, in all probability, disingenuous.
• A doubling of alternative energy electricity production by 2011 would require the main alternatives – solar, wind, geothermal and biomass – together to generate 144 billion KiloWatt-hours of electricity by then. However, under the Energy Information Administration’s “business-as-usual” projections, these industries are expected to supply 150 billion KWh by then, with no additional policies needed. (Note the EIA includes hydropower and wood in its renewables calculations, for the solar/wind/geothermal/biomass figure, see here.)
• Reduction in greenhouse gases as a result of this policy is not likely to occur, as the EIA predicts a similar increase in the use of coal to generate electricity by 2011. In all probability, therefore, we will be emitting greater amounts of greenhouse gases by 2011, not less.
• A “smart grid” is probably a useful technology, but the President and the stimulus plan gold-plated it in order to boost their renewable energy rhetoric. William Tucker has a good summary of what is wrong with the President’s version of a “smart grid” here.
• If the President means that he will double the use of biofuels, this is likely to mean a significant increase in corn ethanol production, resulting in greater diversion of the corn supply into fuel production. This will likely increase already-inflated food costs (the recent price drop would have been significantly greater were it not for ethanol manufacture) and thereby increase food insecurity in a recession. Increased ethanol production is opposed by most major environmental groups as well as free-market groups. See Facts About Ethanol for more.

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