Critics complain that the Obama administration is “picking winners” with its backing of solar power, but a University of Tennessee study just out says the government has always given emerging energy technologies a helping hand—plus, the support for solar is working.
The study [PDF] by the Howard H. Baker Jr. Center for Public Policy, developed for the Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA), concludes that U.S. incentives to grow solar power “are consistent with those provided in the developmental stages of all other energy sources that the federal government has chosen to incentivize,” and says “the solar power industry can provide employment benefits, global market opportunities, and a resource to meet peak power demand at minimal marginal cost.”
What sort of job benefits? Well, the report says “the solar industry has historically produced more jobs per megawatt-hour than any other energy industry,” and estimates that the domestic industry could yield between 200,000 and 430,000 jobs by 2020, with up to 67,700 additional jobs from the solar export sector.
The report adds to a growing body of research making that point that despite the frequently heard post-Solyndra diatribes about the evils of government involvement in the private sector, as a matter of public policy the U.S. has always had its hands in the energy game. In a paper released last fall [PDF], Nancy Pfund and Ben Healey concluded that “federal incentives for early fossil fuel production and the nascent nuclear industry were much more robust than the support provided to renewables today.”
The Tennessee paper describes a 30-year “chasm” that all new energy technologies must leap in order to gain widespread adoption. How do technologies survive the chasm? “Each traditional energy source has been developed with significant government engagement, which has included market control measures for oil, making pipelines available for natural gas, the construction of flood control dams that provide the fuel for hydropower and states surveying their coal resources,” the report says.