The Crisis in Clean Energy

Stark Realities of the Renewables Craze

After years of staggering growth, the clean-energy industry is headed for a crisis. In most of the Western countries leading the industry, the public subsidies that have propelled it to 25 percent annual growth rates in recent years have now become politically unsustainable. Temporary government stimulus programs -- which in 2010 supplied one-fifth of the record investment in clean energy worldwide -- have merely delayed the bad news. Last year, after 20 years of growth, the number of new wind turbine installations dropped for the first time; in the United States, the figure fell by as much as half. The market value of leading clean-energy equipment manufacturing companies has plummeted and is poised to decline further as government support for the industry erodes.

The coming crisis could make some of the toughest foreign policy challenges facing the United States -- from energy insecurity to the trade deficit to global warming -- even more difficult to resolve. The revolution in clean energy was supposed to help fix these problems while also creating green jobs that would power the economic recovery. Some niches in clean energy will still be profitable, such as residential rooftop solar installations and biofuel made from Brazilian sugar cane, which is already competitive with oil. But overall, the picture is grim. This is true not only for the United States but also for the rest of the world, because the market for clean-energy technologies is global.

Whether this shakeout will strengthen or weaken the clean-energy industry will depend on how policymakers, notably in the United States, prepare for it. The root cause of today's troubles is a boom-and-bust cycle of policies that have encouraged investors to flock to clean-energy projects that are quick and easy to build rather than invest in more innovative technologies that could stand a better chance of competing with conventional energy sources over the long haul. Indeed, nearly seven-eighths of all clean-energy investment worldwide now goes to deploying existing technologies, most of which are not competitive without the help of government subsidies. Only a tiny share of the investment focuses on innovation.

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