Shining a light on solar subsidies

In Why they call it Green Energy: The Summers/Klain/Browner Memo I discussed the Shepherds Flat wind project, a $1.9 billion dollar project subsidized to the tune of $1.2 billion. Today, the NYTimes has a good piece on an even bigger subsidy sucker, a $1.6 billion CA solar project that is nearly 90% subsidized by taxpayers and ratepayers leaving a nice profit but virtually no risk for its corporate backers. The grateful but perhaps overly voluble CEO of the corporation building the project had this to say:

As NRG’s chief executive, David W. Crane, put it to Wall Street analysts early this year, the government’s largess was a once-in-a-generation opportunity…

“I have never seen anything that I have had to do in my 20 years in the power industry that involved less risk than these projects,” he said in a recent interview. “It is just filling the desert with panels.”

I suspect that he might have continued, “it was like taking candy from a baby,” but that is just a suspicion.

There are good reasons for taxing all sources of carbon and subsidizing cleaner energy sources (especially R&D) but huge subsidies targeted on a handful of corporations without “skin in the game” are a recipe for waste, corruption and abuse. We can only hope that this was just a once in a generation opportunity.

Addendum: The NYTimes usually has great info-graphics but today’s experiment made it more difficult not easier to get to the key information.

Hat tip: Daniel S.

Addendum 2: It’s telling that so many people want to shift the debate away from the advisability of particular solar and wind subsidies to whether I or others have been consistent about coal, oil and nuclear subsidies.

For the record, in this very post I discuss taxing carbon, obviously including oil and coal, so it is clear that I do not favor subsidizing those energy sources. Also, careful readers (most MR readers!), will see that I am especially worried about “huge subsidies targeted on a handful of corporations,” both of those clauses are important. In this case, for example, we are talking about nearly 90% subsidies and they are targeted on a case by case basis; put these two things together and you get waste, corruption and abuse. For these reasons, I am less worried about subsidies to green energy that leave private firms with lots of skin in the game and that are open to any firm.


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