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Clean Energy Worth the Political Muck

A Commentary By Froma Harrop

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Princely U.S. government subsidies have made developing wind, solar and other clean energy nearly risk-free to investors -- and that's bad. But the price of this domestically produced power has tumbled, thanks in part to such aid. That helps clean energy compete with the fossil kind, which is definitely good .

So this is not quite the wasteful Washington outrage that foes of such subsidies make it out to be. President Obama's clean-energy program -- funded in his stimulus bill and added to President George W. Bush's earlier push -- mostly makes great sense. It strengthens America's position in the booming business of renewable energy while creating much-needed jobs. After all, other governments, such as China's, are pouring money into their new-energy industries.

But gosh, shouldn't Obama's people have written this thing to force the players to have, as they say, more of their own skin in the game? Of course, they should have. Mistakes were made, and more will surely be found. But let's hang in here. The outcome should be worth it.

In the sunny states of California, Arizona and Nevada, the cheapest solar power already undercuts conventional electricity at peak-hour rates, according to The Economist magazine. And tech advances will bring the cost down further. Oil imported from hostile countries or extracted locally using filthy processes may become a thing of the past.

Did we hear the word "Solyndra"? Solyndra is the California solar-panel maker that declared bankruptcy after receiving over $500 million in federal loan guarantees. A scandal brews over reports of Solyndra's alleged political favor-seeking. One concern centers on a high Energy Department official who pushed for the loan while his lawyer-wife represented the company.

House Republicans are investigating the Solyndra deal, as they should. But again, while the public financing process may not have been spotless, the company's innovative technology was the real deal. Solyndra had developed panels that didn't use silicon, then an expensive substance. A later glut of solar panels -- with China possibly selling them here below cost -- ended Solyndra's price advantage and put it out of business.

China now commands over half the U.S. market for solar panels. American makers have accused it of dumping, and the Commerce Department is investigating the charges. 

Meanwhile, Washington's generosity has greased most every search for new energy -- whether help was needed, not needed or not needed as much. And that taxpayer largesse was not always carefully shepherded.

Fossil fuels have received a ton of subsidies. The coal business was handed land. Billions in tax breaks flow to oil companies. And it's hard to forget the disastrously expensive (to taxpayers) program to make synthetic fuel from coal. 

The public subsidizes these energy sources in other ways. How many of our defense dollars have gone to protecting foreign oil supplies? For example, the Persian Gulf War was launched 21 years ago for one reason alone -- to liberate Kuwaiti oil fields from Saddam Hussein's grip. That military action may have turned out well, but it did require sending 500,000 American souls into potential danger.

The big plus for oil from Canadian tar sands is that it comes from a friendly neighbor. But the process for extracting it emits huge amounts of greenhouse gases and uses large amounts of fresh water. And a proposed pipeline to bring that oil to refineries in Texas could put Nebraska's fragile Sand Hills at risk and threaten the irreplaceable Ogallala Aquifer, which supplies water in eight states.

With perseverance and patience, the glass in our energy future could overflow with nonpolluting power, produced at home. The path getting there may not be politically pristine, but in our perpetual search for energy, it's been a lot uglier.

COPYRIGHT 2011 THE PROVIDENCE JOURNAL CO.

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