Brainstorm Green

The president's big greenwash

April 18, 2012: 1:23 PM ET

Perhaps the Obama administration has set the bar for green success too low. Anything that does not implode or burst into flames qualifies as a success.

By Sunil Sharan, contributor

FORTUNE -- The United Nations climate chief, Christiana Figueres, has warned that a Republican win in the U.S. presidential election would jeopardize action against climate change and that America would risk falling behind China and Europe in clean technologies. She urges American voters not to vote for a Republican candidate.

In effect, Ms. Figueres is plumping for President Obama. The head of a UN body meddling in U.S. politics is not only impolitic, it also calls into question the president's own stance on clean energy. While Mr. Obama embraced it initially, allocating over $40 billion to the sector through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, he took a near about-turn in his 2012 State of the Union address by strongly supporting shale gas and oil, while backpedaling on renewables.

What has made Mr. Obama veer away from clean energy? In his 2008 convention speech, he promised to create five million green jobs. The results have been dramatically poorer. But what about the viability of the sector itself? While wind and solar generation technologies have matured over time, their much higher costs than fossil-fuel generation have stunted their widespread deployment.

Numerous initiatives have been mooted to spur renewables, from investing in newer, more efficient technologies, to policies such as cap-and-trade, feed-in-tariffs, a federal clean-energy standard, or incorporating the emission costs of fossil fuels into their price. Of the above, the Obama administration bet on promoting cutting-edge solar, energy storage, electric car, and alternative fuel technologies.

In itself, the intention to innovate was praiseworthy. But many beneficiaries have stumbled. Notables include Solyndra, the solar company that received $535 million and shuttered last summer; battery company Ener1, which after receiving $118 million declared bankruptcy this year; and auto company Fisker, which was awarded $529 million from a $25 billion Advanced Technology Vehicle Manufacturing program created in 2007, received $193 million in 2010, but is struggling now to draw down the remaining $336 million from the Department of Energy. Reportedly over $16 billion of federal green loans have been given to companies either run or primarily owned by Obama financial backers.

Stung by a string of failures, even the DOE is developing cold feet. Plug-in hybrid company Bright Automative has just pulled the plug on itself after being refused a $450 million DOE loan. Diesel car company Carbon Motors too was recently denied a $310 million DOE loan. Its CEO William Santana Li was outraged enough to proclaim that his failure to secure the loan was clearly a political decision in a highly charged, election-year environment. He added that the DOE's loan program represented a glaring failure of the Obama administration's ability to create jobs.

If a spurned suitor is so unhappy, imagine how ordinary taxpayers, whose billions have evaporated into futuristic flights of fancy, feel. America's fascination for the new, new thing has also contributed to the mess. We have sunk billions into cutting-edge solar technologies, in contrast to the Chinese, who have improved the efficiency of traditional polysilicon, and captured 50 percent of the world's solar cell market.

The story is repeated in so-called green cars. Mr. Obama claims to have rescued the U.S. auto industry. But GM's Chevy hybrid comes with lithium-ion batteries, which have been catching fire in government tests, and inhibiting sales. Lithium ion is the same chemical that powers laptops, which too are prone to catch fire. Even Tesla Motors, touted as a rare success of government support, with a $465 million loan granted in 2010, has shipped only about two thousand of its Roadster model. With price tags starting around $50,000 but crossing into six figures, can Tesla's cars hope to compete with Toyota's Prius hybrid, of which over two million have been sold, with prices ranging between $25,000 and $40,000?

Perhaps the Obama administration has set the bar for green success too low. Anything that does not implode or burst into flames qualifies as a success. While massive handouts and spectacular flameouts have dominated renewable energy during the last few years, shale gas and oil have flourished, creating over half a million jobs, and a half-dozen billionaires, all without federal funding or incentives. Some of the downtick in the country's overall unemployment figures can be directly attributed to shale.

Both North Dakota and California have large reserves of shale oil, but while the former is profiting from the resource, the latter refuses to. Renewable-energy mandates and regulations have strangled California's ability to drill for oil. No wonder that its unemployment rate is 11.1 percent, well above the national average of 8.2 percent, while North Dakota's, at 3.3 percent, is the nation's lowest.

Mr. Obama has belatedly recognized the electoral potential of allying with shale, as well as the pitfalls associated with clean technology. Ms. Figueres, so quick to decry his opponents, must be left scratching her head who to back now. Or perhaps she is prescient enough to realize that Mr. Obama is being politically expedient, and will revert to clean energy if he gets reelected.

Sunil Sharan is the founder of Sierra Consulting, an energy policy firm. He was formerly with General Electric, where he served as the director of GE's Smart Grid Initiative from 2008 to 2009. He has worked in the energy industry for over 11 years, and can be reached at sunil_sharan@yahoo.com.

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