In observing the recent struggles of various segments of the global cleantech industry, including renewable energy and advanced energy technology firms, a pattern is emerging. Today’s Wall St. Journal reports “Wind Power Firms on Edge,” as the US wind industry hunkers down pending the renewal or expiration of a key subsidy at the end of 2012. A maker of electric-vehicle batteries that received a federal grant to build a factory in Indiana is reorganizing via bankruptcy, wiping out the equity of its original investors. Meanwhile, the US International Trade Commission may be on the verge of imposing retroactive tariffs on imported Chinese solar power equipment. Each of these stories has unique features, but what they share in common is the consequences of renewable energy policies around the world that promoted overcapacity in manufacturing and fierce competition in deployment, effectively setting up some of their past beneficiaries for failure or at least a period of very low margins. Depending on your perspective, this is either an indictment of such subsidies or collateral damage on our way to a brighter future.
One blogger from an advanced battery trade association noted that “Ener1 Is No Solyndra“, and I tend to agree. As I’ve noted previously, the decision to award Solyndra a $535 million federal loan was ill-advised, not just because of competition from other solar manufacturers, but because at the time the government approved the loan the failure of Solyndra’s business model was essentially already predetermined. Solyndra didn’t contribute much to the global overcapacity in solar modules and panels, because its technology was never competitive. By contrast, Ener1’s problems appear more fundamental. Like much of the global wind industry and solar industry, it was induced to invest in new capacity, the market for which depended almost entirely on subsidies and regulations that governments might not be able to sustain as these technologies scaled up, and that has gotten significantly ahead of demand.
The best examples of that are probably the various solar feed-in tariff (FIT) subsidies in Europe, which until recently were so generous that they not only supported the intended growth of an indigenous solar industry to capitalize on them, but also gave rise to an entirely unintended new export-oriented solar industry in Asia that had essentially no local market when it started, yet has since gone on to dominate global solar manufacturing and eat the lunch of the European solar makers and developers who got fat off the earlier stages of the FITs.
Or consider the US wind industry, including the imported equipment that still supplies around half of the US wind turbine value chain, according to the main US wind trade association. If the 2.2¢ per kilowatt-hour (kWh) Production Tax Credit (PTC) is renewed, and if wind generation grows from the current level of 115 billion kWh per year to 141 billion kWh by 2021, in line with the latest Department of Energy forecast, then over the next 10 years the wind industry would collect up to $30 B, with much of that locked in for projects that have already started up, less the amount generated by projects that opted for the expired Treasury cash grants in lieu of the PTC to the tune of $7.9 B from 2009-11. Yet based on these figures, wind would supply just 3.2% of US electricity in 2021. The industry now seems to be arguing that it needs just one more renewal of the PTC in order to become competitive. As of 2012, this benefit has been in place on an on-again, off-again basis for twenty years.
Although the theory that underpins such subsidies doubtless has some validity–that governments can help new technologies to develop quicker than markets alone would support, create markets for them by stimulating demand, and thereby move them down their learning curves to earlier competitiveness with conventional technologies–in practice such policies also have the serious shortcomings we are seeing. Because they do not operate in Soviet-style centrally planned economies, none of these governments can tell manufacturers precisely how much production capacity to build, or how much they will sell when it comes on-stream. In the absence of such powers–which in any case proved to be over-rated–companies and their investors are at the mercy of the boom-and-bust cycles such policies generate, with the normal, self-correcting mechanisms of industry consolidation dampened by continued intervention. Nor do the policies now in place seem very successful at creating industries that can survive without them. If you doubt that, ask the US wind industry for their forecast of new installations next year if the two-decade-old PTC is not renewed. According to the Journal, it would be somewhere between 0% and 30% of 2011’s 6,810 MW, which was itself a third below the 2009 peak of 10,000 MW, despite the late-2010 extension of the cash grants to cover last year’s projects.
The appropriate response to all of this depends on one’s politics and the firmness of one’s belief that these technologies are essential tools for combating climate change. Falling between the extremes of “just say no” and “look the other way” is the view that governments at least have an obligation to learn from the past and avoid the temptation to yield to demands that they leave existing subsidies in place until their beneficiaries decide they are done with them. If wind tax credits are extended, it should be at a level that recognizes the narrowing competitive gap with conventional energy and phases them out on a schedule. Electric vehicle subsidies should also be reassessed so that we don’t find ourselves still providing upper-income taxpayers with incentives of $7,500 per car, even after sales have taken off and sticker prices fallen significantly. And solar subsidies ought to be fundamentally rethought to make it less attractive to install solar panels in regions with low sunlight, such as New York and New Jersey, than in those with abundant sun. And we shouldn’t do that just for the benefit of taxpayers and in response to trillion-dollar budget deficits, but in the interest of producing healthy, globally competitive companies in these industries.