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Opinion

China is beating us in the burning-coal race

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Beltway Confidential,Opinion,Timothy P. Carney,China,Coal,Solar Energy

President Obama consistently tries to marshall jingoism in support of his green-energy corporatism:

"Other countries are now exporting technology we pioneered and they're going after the jobs that come with it because they know that the countries that lead the 21st century clean energy economy will be the countries that lead the 21st century global economy. I want America to be that nation. I want America to win the future."

This is silliness for many reasons. For one thing, many industries that need subsidies are dead-end industries that end up sucking more wealth out of an economy than they provide.

Second, if we want solar energy, should we really mind if the Chinese are willing to subsidize our solar panels?

Liberal environmentalist writer Stephen Lacey -- an alumnus of the Center for American Progress, which uses Obama's "Win The Green Future" talk all the time -- has a good piece exploring the value of "leading the world in solar energy" and similar goals. He makes a sort-of tongue-in-cheek point that there are some races we should let China win, such as the burning coal race and the GHG race. I would add the "Real Big Walls" race, too.

Lacey's argument:

"What does it mean to “win” the clean energy race, anyway?

"... with each passing year, this framing seems to lose its edge and meaning. It assumes that capturing the value of clean energy is a zero-sum game. It also takes a very isolated approach to all the other economic, environmental and health factors that surround the development of clean energy. ...

"China's (oft-maligned) support for solar manufacturing may have an equally important impact on downstream solar in the U.S. Although China's heavy subsidies helped put American and European solar manufacturers out of business, Chinese producers have dramatically lowered global module prices — in turn lowering the installed cost of PV and helping create tens of thousands of downstream installation jobs in America.

"Who's the 'winner' in that situation?

"Finally, comparing yearly numbers doesn't always give us a full picture of the market. In 2007 and 2008, Spain had become a top contender in the early global solar race. But when it dismantled a grossly generous feed-in tariff, the market collapsed and investment ground to a halt. The same story has played out in other solar markets around the world. Being a leader in the long term doesn't necessarily mean attracting the most investment each year. It means providing consistency and a path for clean energy to scale with fewer subsidies."

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