Some question green investment as clean-energy summit nears

Ten thousand.

That’s the number of green jobs Las Vegas had in 2010, according to a July report from the Brookings Institution. That jobs base accounts for 1.2 percent of the city’s jobs base, roughly equal to the number of Las Vegans employed by taxi and limousine businesses. From 2003 to 2010, the green economy in Las Vegas added 3,125 jobs — a little more than half of the jobs created when The Cosmopolitan of Las Vegas was brought to life in December.

What’s more, a March report from the Council of State Governments found that federal stimulus funds created or saved just 310 green jobs in Nevada in the fourth quarter, up from 95 created or saved in the first quarter of 2009, when the federal government began distributing recovery money. (The report didn’t list funding amounts.)

That’s a disappointing track record for a state that Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., has called the Saudi Arabia of solar and geothermal energy, say free-market groups.

"We’ve been talking about how renewable energy would be the job creator of the future since the 1970s, and the sector has consistently failed to deliver despite massive subsidies," said Geoffrey Lawrence, deputy director of policy at the Nevada Policy Research Institute, a libertarian think tank in Las Vegas. "It’s time to re-evaluate those promises."

Green-economy advocates counter that building the green sector is a long-term project that didn’t begin in earnest until the Obama administration took office in 2009, and it’s unfair to call it a failure so early in its development. That would be like saying the U.S. space program hadn’t lived up to its promise in 1963, noted Joe Romm, a senior fellow with the Center for American Progress Action Fund in Washington D.C.

Reid defended the sector’s economic track record Thursday.

"Despite the predictable opposition from naysayers, strategic investments in clean-energy job creation have a strong track record in Nevada, and remain key to getting people across the state back to work," Reid said in a statement. "Now is not the time to reduce our commitment to creating good-paying clean-energy jobs. We should be building new partnerships and encouraging friendly competition between states, regions and countries to promote innovation and breaking down 20th century barriers blocking clean-energy development."

Reid and the Center for American Progress will co-sponsor the National Clean Energy Summit at Aria on Tuesday to discuss federal policies to jump-start growth and job formation in the green-energy sector. Policymakers including Vice President Joe Biden, Nevada Gov. Brian Sandoval and U.S. Energy Secretary Steven Chu are scheduled to participate. It’s the fourth-annual summit, and it’s worth asking: Has all the talk about green jobs paid off in worthwhile investments?

It’s tough to say.

SHAKY NUMBERS

Agencies and advocacy groups count green jobs differently, so databases don’t show consistent numbers. For example, the BlueGreen Alliance, a Washington, D.C.-based coalition of labor unions and environmentalists, says the Obama administration has spent $93 billion saving or creating 1 million green jobs nationwide, at $93,000 per job, while a November report in The Washington Post pegged federal investment at $90 billion to save or create 225,000 green-energy jobs, or $400,000 per job.

Forget finding a straight answer on state or local jobs. Recovery.gov, the clearinghouse for details on stimulus spending, reports $2.2 billion in funds awarded and $1.3 billion actually distributed to Nevada governments and businesses between February 2009 and June, with 2,297 jobs created in the second quarter. But the site doesn’t separate out green jobs or say how many of those positions already existed.

Specific projects do show big-dollar investments, though.

Sempra Energy’s 48-megawatt Copper Mountain Solar plant near Boulder City consumed nearly $55 million in federal and state tax credits and incentives to create five permanent jobs. Enel Green Power got $61.5 million in stimulus funds for its 25-employee Stillwater and Salt Wells geothermal projects in Fallon. And a $490,000 grant to the Clark County Urban Forestry Revitalization Project, which plants trees in economically distressed neighborhoods, created 1.7 permanent jobs.

Not all green investments have been budget busters: Amonix built a solar-panel factory in North Las Vegas with $5.9 million in federal tax credits, and now employs more than 300 there.

Still, Reid’s office says the U.S. Department of Energy has spent more than $440 million in the last 2½ years on 80 Nevada projects, including solar-panel factories, geothermal plants, energy-efficiency grants, home weatherization and smart-grid infrastructure.

And yet Nevada still has the nation’s highest unemployment rate, noted Myron Ebell, director of the Center for Energy and Environment at the Competitive Enterprise Institute, a free-market group in Washington, D.C.

Observers say the green economy faces a stiff headwind.

Robert Boehm, director of the Energy Research Center at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, blames the general economy. It’s tough to rustle up funding for just about any project during a recession. Plus, California, Arizona and New Mexico are "formidable competitors" for green-energy manufacturing, and that’s hurt the industry here, he said.

Daniel J. Weiss, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, said Nevada’s leaders want to build a vertically integrated clean economy, starting with research and development and continuing through manufacturing, development and export. That takes time.

"It will be a clean-energy evolution, not a clean-energy revolution," he said. "It’s not going to happen overnight."

Lawrence sees a more basic obstacle to green development: Fossil fuels are cheaper than renewables.

"The technology has never really been there for green energy to compete on a competitive basis," he said. "I think policymakers have placed a lot of faith in technologies that haven’t kept pace the way they wanted."

MORE TIME NEEDED?

Clean-energy advocates say bringing the green economy up to speed will take effort — and more money. Others say it’s time to pull the plug on huge renewable-power subsidies sparked by wishful thinking.

Nevada already has an aggressive requirement that NV Energy get 25 percent of its electricity from renewables by 2025. It now gets nearly 15 percent from renewables and conservation. Weiss called the standard key to creating markets for renewables.

Making renewable tax credits permanent would also help, Weiss said. Countless renewable developments have had trouble with funding because they rely on tax credits, grants and loan guarantees that could expire by the end of 2011. Investors are cautious about buying into projects that may not come to fruition. Eliminating expiration dates would lure private investment, Weiss said.

Finally, the nation needs to invest in smart-grid infrastructure to transmit renewables, Weiss said. In Nevada, one such project is under way. NV Energy’s 235-mile, 500-kilovolt One Nevada transmission line (ON Line) will carry geothermal power from north to south when completed in 2013. The utility is developing the project with New York energy developer LS Power. LS received $363 million in Energy Department loan guarantees for its share of the $510 million project; NV Energy is paying for its 25 percent with equity and debt.

Boehm suggested guaranteeing higher power rates for renewable developers, a strategy that dramatically boosted clean energy in Germany and Spain.

But Lawrence, whose group argues against federal subsidies and favors for any industry, countered that those tactics merely drag down the rest of the economy by diverting capital toward an industry for which there’s not genuine demand. In that sense, spending on green energy actually kills jobs in every other industry, as providers of goods and services raise prices to cover higher power costs and reduce demand for their products as a result.

An April 2009 report in The Economist magazine said every green job created with government subsidies kills more than two jobs outside the sector.

"We’re talking about price-fixing and things like that, which really punish the consumer in the end," Lawrence said. "They’re the ones paying those higher prices. They won’t be able to afford other things, like food on the table or a roof over their head. There are always trade-offs. It’s time for policymakers to stop forcing it. Green energy does have a future, but it’s going to have to be able to compete on the market at some point. I think we have to allow the technology to develop until that happens."

Contact reporter Jennifer Robison at jrobison@reviewjournal.com or 702-380-4512.

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