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Can the U.S. build a clean, green economic machine?

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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Can cleaner sources of energy not only power our economy but also drive a recovery from the Great Recession? That’s the question confronted by policymakers across the U.S.—and by debaters in the Intelligence Squared series held March 8 at New York University.

The list of political proponents of a clean, green energy economy is long, ranging from President Obama down to John Fetterman, the mayor of Braddock, Pennsylvania. And the anecdotal evidence thus far seems strong: 2,600 manufacturing jobs in Colorado as a result of Danish wind turbine-maker Vestas—plus the farmers in that state who reap profits from the wind blowing over their fields while continuing to grow crops like wheat. Or the green jobs growth in China, Germany or California.

"Green jobs are the largest source of growth in California [with] job growth 10 times higher than in any other sector," former Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger told the second annual Advanced Research Projects Agency for Energy summit on March 1. "China has made the decision, backed by billions of dollars, that green is where the economic action is going to be. China is an ancient culture with new ideas. We cannot let America be a young culture with old ideas."

But the list of economic counter-examples is also long, including the offshoring of the steel industry that laid Braddock—and all of the Pittsburgh area—low, jobs-wise. In fact, the Rust Belt might also be called one of the downsides of cleaner air: If you want to avoid local air pollution, a simple solution is to shift the coal burning responsible for it far away—as outlined in an infamous memo from Lawrence Summers, then chief economist at the World Bank. And, faced with diminished economic prospects, clean energy companies—Evergreen, Solyndra, Range Fuels—have recently begun laying off American workers.

There are two fundamental questions at the heart of this debate: what is clean energy exactly? And what creates jobs?

The answer to the former depends on who you ask, but it certainly encompasses renewable energy sources such as dams, hot rocks, solar and wind, and may include sources like nuclear or cleaner-burning natural gas. Or even "clean coal."

"Clean coal is an oxymoron akin to family vacation or jumbo shrimp," argued pundit Robert Bryce, author of Power Hungry: The Myths of ‘Green Energy’ and the Real Fuels of the Future at the debate on March 8. "If everything is clean energy, then nothing is."

Setting aside that question for the moment, consider the question of jobs. Not only is there the issue of the quantity of jobs created by any given industry but also the quality. So perhaps there are more jobs in installing or cleaning solar panels than in making them in the first place, a process that tends to be automated. But are those good, high-paying jobs? The kind of jobs to replace the often unionized, say, autoworker jobs that vaulted immigrants and Americans alike into the ranks of the middle class in the 20th century?

At present, there are three engines pumping out American jobs: construction, innovation and services. Rebuilding the American energy infrastructure would ultimately drive job growth in all three, from building new nuclear power plants to retraining auto mechanics to work on electric cars. And there’s the export market to think about: most of the growth in energy infrastructure will take place in the rest of the world, noted private equity investor Kassia Yanosek of Tana Energy Capital. "Clean energy will drive exports, which are critical to future growth."

And that growth depends on manufacturing—because any energy revolution would require a lot of hardware. But if ET (energy technology) follows IT (information technology), most of that manufacturing may be done elsewhere, like China, just as Apple’s iPhone is conceptualized in Cupertino but assembled in China. And if we lose manufacturing, we might, in the end, lose innovation.

"If pilot scale manufacturing goes away, which is closely related to [research and development], R&D will suffer," says ARPA–e director (and mechanical engineer) Arun Majumdar. "That is a big danger and we should do all we can to keep at least that manufacturing—if not more—here in the U.S."

That said, large equipment like a wind turbine tends to be manufactured close to where it will be used, simply because it’s difficult and expensive to transport large, heavy pieces (think of all those wind turbines not fitting under highway overpasses). And that uncovers another facet of the clean energy debate: any energy source starts to look dirtier and dirtier the bigger it gets.

So there’s the mounting opposition to wind farms from Cape Cod in Massachusetts to the Columbia River valley in Oregon. There are the ongoing lawsuits about the endangered desert tortoise holding up solar thermal power plant development in the Mojave Desert. There’s the furor over Big Corn, which has received at least 40¢ per gallon in subsidies since 1978 to ferment the 200-proof "corn whiskey" that now amounts to some 10 percent of the nation’s fuel supply, 13 billion gallons of ethanol in all. And there’s the fact that burning natural gas releases half the CO2 of burning coal, which is still a lot of CO2 as far as the atmosphere is concerned.

"If the goal is to reduce CO2 emissions to 1 billion tons by 2050, today, right now, CO2 from natural gas use is 1.2 billion tons," said Steven Hayward, think-tanker at the American Enterprise Institute at the Tuesday evening debate. "It’s above the target for every source."

No energy source is without its flaws, but there are economic, environmental and military reasons to avoid spending $1 billion a day on imported oil, among other spurs for an alternative energy revolution. "National security is very dependent on energy security," noted Steven Chu at an address to the ARPA–e summit on March 1. "Energy we create at home is wealth creation at home."

And America needs all the wealth creation it can get. "Americans are not a people who sit out a revolution," former Colorado governor Bill Ritter noted in the debate at NYU. "There is a revolution upon us now, a clean energy revolution and it’s global. Will we lead or will we follow?"

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  1. 1. sjn 3:07 pm 03/9/2011

    The article starts to address the key issue but avoids the deep political implications.

    China and Europe are building a green economy because they deeply tie the government subsidies for market development to maintaining their indigenous manufacturing and development base.

    In the US dogma of "free markets" we subsidize development with large R&D government funding and then watch as the manufacturing is off-shored to the lowest labor cost markets.

    Now even the development and prototyping is being off-shored – Applied Materials for example, invested $1 billion in the world’s largest solar R&D facility in China, followed by layoffs of hundreds to thousands of R&D personnel in the US and Germany. Why – because the Chinese gov’t said if you want to sell in China you have to transfer your technology to China.

    Unless we directly address how we tie the subsidization of green development to keeping the manufacturing base in the US, the "green jobs" mantra will be reduced to installing off-shore manufactured technology with US tax dollars.

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  2. 2. jtdwyer 3:36 pm 03/9/2011

    I agree – China’s "indigenous manufacturing" base was once America’s indigenous manufacturing base before Wall Street, Investors & Corp. Executive Mgmt. sold out for short term profits.

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  3. 3. JamesDavis 3:37 pm 03/9/2011

    Coal, oil, nuclear and natural gas is not clean and never will be clean because of the destruction it causes to the environment when it is extracted. It will not take us 40 or 50 years to get away from coal, oil, nuclear and natural gas if we can somehow force the auto makers to build only electric cars and start mass producing Geothermal and hydro (ocean wave, dam and river). With dams, the damage is already done to the ecosystem, so just install industrial turbines at the overflow. We already have river turbines that are safe for fish and the environment, so all they need is installed. We can use spent natural gas wells that used fracking to extract the gas to drill a little deeper and build the Geothermal plants at a fraction of the cost it would take to drill from ground level.

    Solar has made such great advancements that they can be mass produced and placed on every home and office building to supplement the grid when more power is needed, and with the solar, the electricity they produce is free to the homeowner. These three sources of clean never ending energy will pump out free nondestructive energy for the rest of our time.

    Stop the Bush wars, stop the incentives to fossil fuels and direct it to clean energy production, geo, hydro an solar, and manufacture all these clean energy equipments here in America and we can get back those 25,000,000 jobs the recession and outsourcing took away from us. Start it now and we can be fossil fuel free in ten years.

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  4. 4. laurenra7 7:38 pm 03/9/2011

    On the motion "clean energy can drive America’s economic recovery" the opposition won by a large margin. Some salient points:

    1. Only in very recent history has anyone proposed using energy (ie.; "clean energy") that is several times more expensive (and less efficient) as a replacement for current technologies. It makes no economic sense. Pursuing it as vigorously as it proponents want to would result in significantly depressing our economic output (read: we’d all be poorer and our standard of living would drop).

    2. Our dependency on foreign oil is a convenient but weak argument. Virtually all our electricity production is from domestic sources: coal, natural gas, nuclear, hydroelectric, geothermal, solar, wind. Only transportation relies primarily on oil and we get it from a dozen nations so it’s highly diversified. We only get about 8% from middle eastern countries.

    3. Clean energy jobs is also a heartwarming proposition until you analyze the data. This article completely sidesteps how jobs are created and who creates them. Private sector innovation and risk-taking creates jobs. Government jobs are subsidized by taxing the private sector. Clean energy is heavily subsidized by the government, taking away money and job-creation opportunities from the private sector, the real wealth generating engine of our economy. So clean energy jobs are in effect very expensively subsidized jobs.

    4. The energy sources we’ve discovered, the way we continue to use those energy sources more efficiently, was not by done by government edict. It was done through the normal pressures of the free market. Government always manages to botch this. Note the fabulously expensive corn ethanol subsidy if you need evidence.

    5. We’ll get "green energy" in due time as normal market pressures and improvements in technology and efficiency make them viable.

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  5. 5. Shoshin 7:58 pm 03/9/2011

    Green jobs, biofuels, green powerhouse etc. are a pipe dream. One issue matters; energy density. Energy density is how much usable power can be stored in a given volume and released on demand.

    Oil and fossil fuels have high energy densities, easy storability and are very useful. They provide more energy than they consume in producing them.

    Wind power, solar etc. consume more energy than they produce. They have minimal to non-existent energy densities, are limited in storage to battery technology and it is impossible to rely on them for a stable predictable energy source.

    Perform this thought experiment: Your daughter is born pre-maturely and requires to be placed in a hospital incubator for several weeks to save her life. If the incubator stops working, she dies. The hospital has a "Green Energy Option" and gives you the choice of power sources for the incubator. You can choose one powered by a natural gas generator. The NG generator has 99.9999% reliability, 24-7. The second choice is for a solar powered system that only works at 12 hrs/day. The third choice is for wind power that only works when the wind blows.

    Which do you choose? Yeah, I thought so. And that’s why green energy is a fallacy.

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  6. 6. sethdayal 11:23 pm 03/9/2011

    Wind power is very expensive very destructive at $15B/Gw + a minimum of $8B a GW for transmission line and $140B/GW for a month of pumped hydro storage.

    Solar is a no brainer for space/water heating but at $45B/GW + the same $8B a GW for transmission line and $140B/GW for a month of pumped hydro storage it’s worthless as an electricity source.

    Currently the wind/solar/gas scam gets 75% of its energy from burning filthy stinking,deadly particulate, GHG, NOX and radioactive radon gas spewing natural gas which because of system wide methane leaks spews as almost as many GHG’s as coal.

    Geothermal without high pressure supercritical steam and and earthquake solutions is an expensive novelty.

    The US gets only 30% of its energy requirements from electricity, the rest coming from filthy petrol and natural gas product.

    The aim would be for all future energy supply being electricity supplemented with solar heating and low hanging fruit conservation

    Really the only possible source for that electricity is nuclear power at $2B/Gw

    The Candu 6E nuclear reactor has been built all over the world at that cost in 4 years or less – the latest in 2007 in Romania. Its successor the ACR-1000 just approved by the Canada is being quoted at $2.5B/GW which AECL claims will drop to under $1B/Gw after the first twenty or so are built. The most incompetent in the OECD US regulator the NRC hasn’t approved a nuke in 30 years and never will so Canada and Mexico will have to rim the border with nukes selling us electricity as well as oil and gas.

    There are no environmental impacts of a nuclear reactor with the tiny amount of waste fuel perfectly contained until burned up on site by new compact GenIV nukes. In fact the Candu reactor can burn repackaged used nuke fuel rods from American PWR reactors producing no net waste.

    Nuclear power is now at a 75% acceptance according to a recent survey. When citizens are educated on nuclear power and realize power bills are many times higher with solar and wind opposition would largely disappear.

    Much could be done but politicians are too afraid of losing the vote of the uninformed or the campaign donations and other favors of the special interest group to act responsibly. I’d suggest a citizens assembly type process where a random group of average citizens is selected and paid well to listen to interest groups and experts, gather information and make a decision based on knowledge not one liners from twits like Obama and Russ Limbaugh. Here’s an example of how

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  7. 7. Carlyle 2:14 am 03/10/2011

    States with high alternative energy contributions like California, also have high energy costs driving manufacturing jobs to states with lower energy costs or overseas to China where despite the rhetoric to the contrary, manufactures the same goods with much greater pollution.
    Overseas you have countries like Spain that brag about the success of their green power. Highest priced electricity in Europe & a virtually bankrupt nation. Great examples to follow. The lessons however fail to be learned & the refusal to spend even a fraction of the misplaced funding on nuclear development is saddling our kids with a lifetime of debt & reduced jobs prospects.

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  8. 8. sethdayal 2:31 am 03/10/2011

    1) Nuclear power is clean energy and in the US is less expensive than coal and about the same levelized cost as gas when financed by efficient public power companies like TVA.

    2)Nuclear power can displace gas from heating and power production making it available for transportation as DME (propane), CNG, methanol, and LNG at 20% the cost of petrol. Shell’s Pearl plant produces diesel equivalents for $20 a barrel from natural gas. Eventually electric vehicles and nuclear hydrogen derived synfuels would replace the gas. Payback on this investment is at a 40% rate of return.

    3) Clean energy jobs are created in the very efficient public power sector like TVA building clean nuke power. American private utilities are incredibly inefficient and exist primarily to stuff the Swiss bank accounts of Wall street owners and executives by extorting money from the ratepayer. Public power Hydro Quebec recently won the award as the best run utility in North America.

    4)Nuclear power was invented and developed by the government. Ethanol use is a result of the payoff of our corrupt politicians by Big Agriculture.

    5) Without a government lead World War 2, space program, or FDR New Deal effort, clean nuclear energy from private sector operators will be far too late to save us from global warming or peak oil disasters.

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  9. 9. laurenra7 4:23 am 03/10/2011

    I agree that nuclear power is just about the "cleanest" viable energy we have right now. It is still more expensive than coal if you factor in the cost of building new plants. It’s currently cheaper than coal only because we haven’t built a new nuclear power plant in 37 years and none are planned anytime in the foreseeable future, not even by the TVA. We ought to be building more plants but the regulatory and legal bureaucracy is so burdensome that the cost is prohibitive.

    I also agree that gas-to-liquid from natural gas is an excellent alternative especially since we have huge natural gas reserves. Unfortunately we also have huge resistance to developing these vast resources by the same environmentalist lobby that makes developing nuclear power almost impossible.

    I disagree that private utilities are incredibly inefficient. It is the nature of private industry of any kind to become more efficient due to natural pressures in a free market. It is the government-subsidized schemes that are inefficient. There is no incentive for them to be otherwise. Why Hydro Quebec appears to buck this trend is a mystery to me, but it isn’t by virtue of being government-owned. Perhaps it has to do with the fact that Canada has huge hydroelectric resources and 93% of Hydro Quebec’s electricity comes from dams…and their environmental strictures aren’t nearly as severe as ours are.

    Electric vehicles will replace gas vehicles only when it’s economically feasible, which may still be decades in the future. Battery technology has a long way to go still.

    I’m glad you brought up global warming because it is the myth that humans are catastrophically warming the planet that stymies efforts to take advantage of our vast natural gas and petroleum resources. Peak oil is another widely-believed myth. Peak oil was supposed to have been reached a couple decades ago but more efficient use of oil, new extraction methods, and newly discovered oil fields have kept it at bay. The only peak is the one reached because we refuse to open up any of the new oil deposits in our country to drilling.

    The point is we will never get to the "next" energy technology if we limit our ability to use the current one. It takes energy to fuel the technological strides that lead to improvements in efficiency and development of better technologies.

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  10. 10. Shoshin 3:24 pm 03/11/2011

    I would further posit that it is immoral to use "green energies" if it is clear that the "green energy" results in a net larger consumption of fossil fuels/funds than would be case had not the "green energy" been implemented.

    This situation is clearly already the case in Europe and Ontario, Canada, where large scale integration of "green energy" is proving to be a massive waste of tax-payer funds while requiring even greater fossil fuel use to compensate for the unreliable nature of "green energy".

    The people responsible need to be prosecuted for crimes against humanity for diverting needed funds from AIDS research, causing deaths from starvation through artificially raising food prices due to bio-fuel proliferation and permanently impairing the future of whole civilizations by wantonly destroying the right to access to energy for their own political gains.

    And I’m not kidding. Britain is already on the road to rationing electricity and giving preference to those "of highest social purpose".

    Disgusting. 1984 is here. Today.

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  11. 11. rolliesmith 2:45 pm 03/13/2011

    The above discussion demonstrates nicely how ideology (and the self-interest that maintains that ideology) is so determinative of the perception of facts.

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  12. 12. bucketofsquid 10:13 am 03/14/2011

    Japan. Nuclear meltdown of highly advanced nuclear plants. Black outs due to the loss of 2 power plants. Nuclear isn’t the panacea you portray it as. I agree that we should expand and improve nuclear but please try to be realistic about the risks involved.

    We can cut a lot of energy demand by telecom and remote working. Geothermal heating and cooling have great long term benefits in reduction of energy use. LED lighting and low water systems also have good pay off. As battery storage and generation efficiency is improved over the next decade or so we should see wind and solar start to become reasonable.

    We must not forget though that the best alternative is population reduction via smaller family size. As global populations stabilize and then drop the energy demand decreases. India is the main population growth culprit at the moment but even they should eventually peak and start to drop off.

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  13. 13. gs_chandy 4:27 am 03/18/2011

    We have a long way to go before we can ‘safely’ use nuclear power (fission) – IF ever such a happy day arrives!

    We probably passed ‘Peak-oil’ a decade or more ago, so we have to seek alternatives.

    Coal is currently simply too polluting.

    Hydroelectric – by no means will there be sufficient, and there are huge environmental costs associated with large hydel plants.

    Other renewable sources of energy (solar; wind; tidal) – not at all sufficient for humanity’s burgeoning needs; and, in any case, the needed technologies are nowhere near ready for deployment.

    Fusion energy is a long, LONG way in the future (assuming it is going to be safe enough for more than lab-scale demos).

    What other options are there ahead?

    Have we ever thought of learning to live more frugally? Of adjusting our economic philosophy and economics appropriately to the idea that we are NOT the "masters of the universe"?

    Have we ever thought of limiting our population to the extent that we’re able to live, sustainably, on planet earth?

    Will we ever learn to act more wisely than we do today?

    – GSC

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