Tuesday's fifth annual National Clean Energy Summit at Bellagio was replete with promises of job creation and economic development. To rev up the faithful, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid even told attendees that green energy is the Earth's salvation, a necessity if the world is to avoid the apocalypse.
"Our nation's infrastructure is literally falling apart because it wasn't designed to withstand these conditions," Sen. Reid said. "Runways are melting, trapping planes. Train tracks are bending, derailing subways. Highways are cracking, buckling and breaking open." He also ripped "dirty energy profits" used to prop up those who dare to point out that green energy doesn't always pencil out.
The prescription offered by most at the summit, including Sen. Reid, is to pour even more billions of tax dollars into renewable power projects to wean us off fossil fuels.
No doubt renewable energy technologies will continue to evolve and become more viable. But it would be helpful if conferences such as this one included a serious discussion of economic realities rather than simply devolving into a pep rally for increased public handouts to favored green producers all too eager to stick out their hands.
Exaggerated scare tactics about the Earth's destruction may make for gripping sound bites, but they don't form a very sturdy base upon which to build sound policy. Nor is this about national security. The development of huge reserves of previously inaccessible domestic shale oil and natural gas have taken that argument off the table. As for economic development, green power supporters who promised millions of high-paying jobs as part of the renewable revolution have little so far to show for their expenditures.
On Tuesday, the Nevada Journal - the newsmagazine of the Nevada Policy Research Institute, a local think tank - released its examination of green energy subsidies and their effect on "green-collar" employment here. The Journal found that more than $1.3 billion in federal funds for geothermal, solar and wind projects since 2009 "has yielded and is projected to yield just 288 permanent, full-time jobs. That's an initial cost of over $4.6 million per job."
"The Silver State North solar plant, for example, located near Primm, employs only two full-time employees, while the Copper Mountain solar plant in Boulder City employs only five," Nevada Journal's Kyle Gillis reported. "Combined, these plants have received, or are eligible to receive, up to $92 million in federal loans and subsidies. Copper Mountain is also eligible to receive $12 million in tax rebates from the state of Nevada. That means each supposedly permanent job starts out costing taxpayers about $14.85 million."
The pity here is that taxpayers are forced to subsidize these efforts on the front end, then pay again at the back end when their utilities are compelled to purchase more-expensive green power to fulfill government portfolio mandates.
There will likely come a day decades down the road when some form of energy will become commercially and economically viable on a large enough scale to supplant coal, oil and natural gas without crippling the nation's standard of living. But that evolution should be driven primarily by private-sector ingenuity and capital, not billions in tax dollars borrowed and doled out by a debt-riddled Washington.