Solyndra and the Green Jobs Fantasy

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Ken James / Bloomberg via Getty Images

The Solyndra plant in Fremont, California.

The talented Mike Grunwald laid out the case yesterday for quarantining Solyndra from the rest of the solar effort. Just because Solyndra’s model failed, he says, doesn’t mean the rest of the push to fund innovation in renewable energy while simultaneously creating much-needed jobs is corrupt or doomed to failure.

It’s really not my area, but I’m skeptical of the idea that wind and solar energy can play a significant role in supplying U.S. energy needs, let alone ultimately displace dirty sources like coal or crude oil. As of 2009, wind and solar combined made up all of 1% of U.S. energy production and 0.8% of consumption, according to this Energy Department report (pdf). Solar taken by itself makes up a whopping 0.1% of total production and 0.1% of consumption.

Mike says, “The U.S. solar market doubled last year, and it’s expected to double again this year, even though many states are reducing their subsidies.” Says renowned Ag-jobs expert, Foghorn Leghorn: “Two nuthins is nuthin.”

And while green advocates say conservation will help tip the balance in favor of renewables, James Fallows did a fairly thorough job in his Atlantic cover story last December of explaining why global energy demands will likely rise not fall, and that coal is likely the only way those demands will be met.

But the real bone I have to pick with Mike is over this section of his post:

I was on some TV show with Sam Donaldson after Fukushima, and he scoffed that maybe we’d have wind and solar someday, but not in his lifetime. Dude! It’s here! Wind is now a bigger employer than coal.

The numbers to support that jobs claim come from this EIA report, which was repackaged by blogger Green Wombat and others. At the Christian Science Monitor’s Bright Green blog, Eoin O’Carroll debunks the claim:

It’s a bogus comparison. According to the wind energy report, those 85,000 jobs in wind power are as “varied as turbine component manufacturing, construction and installation of wind turbines, wind turbine operations and maintenance, legal and marketing services, and more.”  The 81,000 coal jobs counted by the Department of Energy are only miners. Their figure excludes those who haul the coal around the country, as well as those who work in coal power plants.

O’Carroll further makes the solid point that even if you disregard the bad comparison and just tout the overall employment numbers for the wind industry, you’re undercutting your larger point. If it takes that many people to make the equipment to produce 0.7% of America’s energy needs, it’s totally unscalable.

I’m all for innovation and believe in government investments to fuel it. But just as Jimmy Carter’s solar subsidies in the ‘70s did lasting damage to renewable energy’s credibility, the green jobs movement is in danger of undermining itself for years to come by projecting utopian scenarios through the lens of bad numbers. In the wake of Solyndra, supporters of renewables need to find credible solid ground to stand on if they want to avoid a complete rout. Politically, it may already be too late.