Is a Carbon Cap Also a Jobs Program? Or Just Big Government?

March 3, 2009

Just came back from Da Hizill, specifically the Rayburn Hizouse Bizuilding.  (Too much?  Yeah, too much.)  Anyhow, we happened to catch a show put on by EDF, about how switching to clean electricity will actually be a huge generator of jobs.  (Admission was free.)

The pitch goes like this: cutting carbon from electricity use depends on a couple of important steps: switching to clean energy (wind solar tidal hydro etc.) and fixing up the ratty old grid we have out in the garage.  Doing either one means building lots of big stuff — power stations, turbines, new transmission lines, solar arrays, you name it.  That takes parts, which you gotta buy from people who make them, and labor, which you gotta get by hiring people who need jobs.

They even have a whole website thingy about it:

There were also company reps there talking up their own efforts on tidal energy, solar energy, waste heat, and the green-ness of Wal-mart.

Here’s some bullets to take home with you:

  • Those big mammajamma wind turbines have 8,000 to 12,000 parts.
  • EDF’s site shows where all those parts get made, or could get made, in the US of A.
  • Solar panels come in flexy sheets, like 18-foot-long Fruit Roll-ups.  All you gotta do is peel and stick, really.  Well, not really.
  • Big heavy industry plants, that do things like pour liquid metal, etc., spew tons of waste energy.  They also buy tons of power.  Capturing that waste heat reduce their power needs, and can take a lot of dirty generation off line.
  • The tidal-energy guy wishes that his tax credit was as big as the solar and wind tax credits are.
  • Wal-Mart says a lot of stuff, and I don’t know how much to believe, because they are quite evil, and capitalist imperialist pig-dogs.  But they seem sincere about selling lots of stuff, and they seem sincere about cutting their costs.  To the extent the stuff they sell is green, and the costs they cut are energy costs, then hey it’s a win-win, right?  And they’re not totally insincere; EDF has two staffers based in Wal-Mart’s Arkansas HQ, and why would they bother doing that if Wal-Mart wasn’t playing ball?
  • Like always, green issues intertwine with others: new tech needs skills, so we need to educate or import the brainpower.

All this work wouldn’t last for ever — at some point you eventually get done building all this energy stuff, and then what?  But for a decade or more, it would likely be a job-creating stimulus.

The panel generally agreed on two things: 1) it sucks that we’re not leading on green tech, because we’re losing economic activity, and 2) the way to get this jump-started is to put a fat sticker price on carbon emissions.

The panel generally ignored the whole embedded-carbon question — how much carbon emissions go into making all these low-carbon improvements?  Are we just cranking the coal-fired powerplants up to eleven in our enthusiasm to build green stuff?

My takeaway is that there are regulations that drive good economic trends, either by redistributing money to where it creates more economic activity, or by putting burdens where they’re most efficiently met (the minimum wage, social security, product safety regs, stuff like that) and then there are bogeyman regs that just slow things down and gum up the works to avoid a particular problem.

The name of the Green game right now is to prove that clean energy regs are in the first category — they can be designed in ways that drive, rather than suppress, economic activity.  That means showing that over time, the payoff in economic activity will be at least on the same scale as the cost imposed.

My other takeaway is that there’s not much room for all us softy social-science majors in this.  The green turnaround is going to be in the hands of the MBAs who run businesses, skilled blue-collar folks who can build stuff, and ridiculously smart people who know stuff like fluid dynamics and meteorology.  Concerned lefties with their BAs in Emotional Typology or Hobbes and Locke are in the bleachers for this very important game.