Global “Clean” Energy Expenditures are Down (and Respect for Economic Realities are Up) in 2013

It is refreshing to see that environmentalists and liberal governments are beginning to recognize the economic realities they face when manipulating energy markets to promote clean, renewable energy sources. For example, a recent Time Magazine article investigates why total public and private funding of “clean power” from the global renewable energy industry fell 14% in 2013. This amounts to a decline of 23% since the peak of such spending occurred in 2011. The data cited came from a study from the Frankfurt School-UNEP and Bloomberg New Energy Finance.

This study points out that Europe decreased its spending on clean, renewable energy sources by 44% while the U.S. decreased it is spending by 10%. These reductions were found to largely arise from three economic realities:

  • The declining costs of producing “clean” energy.
  • The significant reduction in public subsidies.
  • Increased competition from renewable but “unclean” biofuels power sources.

Economic Reality #1: Subsidizing an activity can drive down the unit cost of production by creating economies of scale. For example, the average cost for installing a voltaic solar cell in the U.S. declined 60% in the last few years. Indeed, despite the reductions in total spending in 2013, global clean energy capacity in 2013 (from renewable energy sources other than existing hydroelectric power sources) had remained the same as it was in 2012. However…

Economic Reality #2: Public sector funding sources are scarce. As Europe is slowly recovering from the recent global recession, the central governments of these countries are finding it very difficult to justify costly public investments in clean energy subsidies when other popular social programs compete for survival in an environment of shrinking public sector budgets. In fact, Spain and Bulgaria made their subsidy cuts retroactive, shuttering their clean energy industries, despite the falling unit costs of providing clean energy. Further…

Economic Reality #3: Every choice has an opportunity cost that cannot be avoided.  Clean power is defined as coming from renewable, sustainable fuel sources that create very low or no pollution or greenhouse gas emissions. Environmental scientists are beginning to realize that subsidized biofuel production:

  • Pushes up global food prices, because the fuel is grown with water sources and lands that could be used for growing food, which increases food prices and makes biofuels less “sustainable”.
  • Increases water pollution levels from pesticides and insecticides, making biofuels “unclean.” Indeed, an article in the magazine Scientific American notes that, “U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has for the first time acknowledged the risks of uncontrolled biofuels development.”

We seem to be living in a world where national governments are intent on accelerating our adoption of clean energy sources along a time line not supported by private energy markets. At least it is refreshing to see that both governments and environmentalists are slowly (if only involuntarily) admitting to economic reality: the true scarcity of valuable resources in our world creates real and unavoidable influences on the efficacy of government policies designed to accelerate clean energy industry development. We cannot simply wave the magic wand of “hope” to force the hand of the market in a manner that ignores such economic realities.

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