Green Accountability

September 15th, 2011 by Phil Mattera

Obamacare, abortion, gay marriage and taxes are apparently not enough to complain about. Conservative politicians have a new whipping boy: green jobs. Republican members of Congress and GOP Presidential hopefuls seem to think these days that the greatest sin of the Obama Administration is its effort to encourage employment growth in the renewable energy sector.

Mitt Romney’s recently released economic plan accuses Obama of having “an unhealthy ‘green’ jobs obsession.” In her response to the President’s jobs speech, Michele Bachmann charged that the Administration is imitating the green-jobs policies of Spain, which she bizarrely suggested were responsible for that country’s astronomical rates of unemployment. Rick Perry’s attacks on the reality of climate change imply that green jobs are unnecessary.

At the same time, Republicans in Congress are trying to turn the bankruptcy of solar company Solyndra, which leaves the federal government on the hook for $535 million in loan guarantees, into a morality tale not only about supposed cronyism but also about the folly of government support for green jobs.

As usual, there is a high dose of hypocrisy among those making the criticisms. As USA Today points out, while he was governor of Massachusetts, Romney supported the use of public funds to support renewable energy businesses. What the paper did not mention was that one of the recipients of those funds was Evergreen Solar, which got a $2.5 million state grant in 2003 and went on to receive $44 million more from Romney’s successor Deval Patrick. Earlier this year, Evergreen announced plans to shift its production to China and later filed for bankruptcy.

In 2008 the Texas Enterprise Fund, a subsidy program overseen by Gov. Perry, gave $1 million to the solar company HelioVolt. The company has also struggled and earlier this year put itself up for sale. A report by Texans for Public Justice noted that the fund had relaxed HelioVolt’s job-creation requirement. Perry’s fund also gave $2.5 million to SunPower Corp.

Romney and Perry are far from the only Republic governors who have overseen the use of taxpayer funds to invest in renewable energy companies. Under the leadership of Gov. Jan Brewer, Arizona has been offering a Renewable Energy Tax Incentive. In her State of the State speech last year, Brewer said she was “proud to announce the arrival of Suntech Power Holdings. It’s the first solar company to come to Arizona because of the renewable energy tax incentive program I signed into law in June.”

Recently, Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, who flirted with a run for the Republican Presidential nomination earlier this year, supported and then signed legislation that will provide a whopping $75 million subsidy for Calisolar, a California company that plans to produce solar cells in the Magnolia State. The law also includes $100 million in financial assistance for biomass energy company HCL CleanTech.

The fact that Republicans are disingenuous in their criticism of the Obama Administration’s renewable energy efforts does not mean that green subsidies at the federal or state level are necessarily a good thing. While the need to develop alternative energy systems is an urgent task for the nation, it does not make sense to repeat the mistakes of conventional economic development policy in helping the green sector.

That means, for one thing, not simply throwing money (including tax breaks and loan guarantees) at companies simply because they are making green promises. In many cases it may make more sense to let the private sector finance new renewable energy ventures and save public funds for energy infrastructure investments and for worker training in green occupations. Adopting aggressive renewable portfolio standards is also a key role for government to play.

In cases where some direct government assistance makes sense, public officials need to perform due diligence on the recipient company and impose strong safeguards, including job quality standards and clawbacks if the firm does not live up to its job-creation obligations.

As the Solyndra and Evergreen episodes show, the fact that corporations are focused on renewable energy does not make them angels. They may still be incompetent or engage in the same types of corporate misconduct seen among their conventional counterparts. Green business must also be accountable business.

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