Romney’s solar flip-flop

The first time he ran for president, he liked green power. What changed?

Topics: Mitt Romney, ,

Romney's solar flip-flopIndian workers walk past solar panels at the Gujarat Solar Park at Charanka in Patan district; Mitt Romney (Credit: AP)

In February 2007, in his very first presidential campaign visit to New Hampshire, Mitt Romney toured a solar power plant. Unsurprisingly for a politician in such a location, he found some nice things to say about renewable energy.

North Andover’s Eagle-Tribune reported that Romney promised he would soon “lay out a full energy program” featuring government incentives for developing alternative energy — including solar and wind power. Romney anticipated such “incentives will foster technological breakthroughs that can speed up” the development of alternative energy, reported the paper.

Romney said he came to the plant with questions about the long-term impact of solar power, but was pleased to find out the cost is dropping and affordable solar energy could be available in the United States in six to eight years. He also said he was encouraged to hear much of the firm’s business comes from overseas. He suggested U.S. policy-makers take note of the fact that Japan, China and Korea are investing in solar power.

“You’re doing spectacularly well,” Romney told company executives and employees. “You’re helping to change the world.”

Today, Mitt Romney isn’t quite such a fan of changing the world with solar power, if we are confident enough to believe his campaign website: “…Green technologies are typically far too expensive to compete in the marketplace…The failure of windmills and solar plants to become economically viable or make a significant contribution to our energy supply is a prime example.”

Of course, back in 2007, Romney also believed that climate change was man-made and supported a global cap-and-trade system to limit greenhouse gas emissions. Now he says “we don’t know what’s causing climate change on this planet” and “I do not believe in cap-and-trade.” So it shouldn’t be all that much of a shock that Romney is giving the cold shoulder to solar power. If there’s one thing we know about Mitt, he never allows his past positions on an issue to weigh him down.



But in the wake of the news that one of the U.S.’s biggest solar power start-ups, First Solar, is laying off 30 percent of its staff and closing some factories, along with the well-publicized woes of other, government-aided solar power companies, it’s worth asking: Is Romney right? Has solar power been a disappointment?

Let’s start with some facts. In 2005, two years before Romney’s visit to New Hamsphire, the world had about 4.5 gigawatts of installed solar power capacity. As of the end of 2011, that number had jumped to 65 gigawatts, with 27 gigawatts deployed in that year alone. Another 27 gigawatts is expected to go online in 2012. For a graphic illustration of that growth, just go to Gujarat, India, where the largest solar power plant in the world — 600 megawatts, covering 5000 acres, or the size of lower Manhattan — was switched on this week.

Solar power has also never been cheaper. According to a report released in April from the McKinsey Group, since 2008, the price of solar power photovoltaic panels has fallen 40 percent per year, and is projected to continue to drop by about 10 percent a year through 2020. Installation costs are also falling. In some parts of the United States, solar power is already cost-competitive with other forms of electricity generation.

Critics of solar power point out that the drop in price and increase in installed generating capacity are the result of Chinese overproduction and government subsidies. The scaling back of subsidies in Europe and the United States will, they argue, result in supply far exceeding demand, which may continue to push prices down in the short-run but calls into question the long-term profitability of solar power manufacturers. California’s success at reaching grid parity, as seen through this prism, is the artificial result of a combination of California’s aggressive incentives for renewable energy, China’s over-production of panels and federal subsidies. Take out the subsidies, wait for the inevitable Chinese crash and, well, Romney will be proven right — solar power still isn’t ready for prime-time.

The counter-argument holds that falling prices will generate increased demand. The more competitive solar power becomes with electricity generated by burning coal or natural gas, the easier it becomes to switch to solar — and the less the industry will require government subsidies. In this scenario, solar power panels have become a commodity amenable to economy-of-scale mass production, which is bound to push prices down even further. The competition will be brutal, and there will be many more bankruptcies along the way, but the survivors will flourish in a steadily growing market.

The irony is that we might already be close enough to the point at which solar power can stand on its own that government support may not really be necessary to assure its long term growth, making the whole debate over Romney’s flip-flop moot. The tragedy is that the countries that will benefit the most from the maturation of the market for solar power will be those — China, Germany — who poured the most resources — private and public — into the industry, and stayed steadfast, while those who abandoned the market after a few high-profile bankruptcies will be left on the sideline. And the absurdity is that Romney was probably right in 2007 — the cost of solar power has dropped massively since then, is affordable, and government incentives probably can boost technological advances, but wrong in 2012, when he says green power isn’t viable.

Try telling Anand, an Indian villager who makes his living shelling betel nuts in Karnataka, that green power doesn’t make economic sense.

From a must-read story published by Bloomberg:

In October, Bangalore-based Simpa Networks Inc. installed a solar panel on Anand’s whitewashed adobe house along with a small metal box in his living room to monitor electricity usage. The 25-year-old rice farmer, who goes by one name, purchases energy credits to unlock the system via his mobile phone on a pay-as-you-go model.

When his balance runs low, Anand pays 50 rupees ($1) — money he would have otherwise spent on kerosene. Then he receives a text message with a code to punch into the box, giving him about another week of electric light.

When he pays off the full cost of the system in about three years, it will be unlocked and he will get free power.

Or tell it to Obama, who, unlike Romney, has remained consistent in his support for solar power over the years, even in the face of the embarrassing Solyndra debacle. The president visited his own solar power plant in March.

At the Copper River Solar Plant in Boulder City, Nevada, Obama told reporters “This is an industry on the rise… It’s a source of energy that’s becoming cheaper.”

Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 11
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Beautiful Darkness by Fabien Vehlmann & Kerascoët
    Kerascoët's lovely, delicate pen-and-watercolor art -- all intricate botanicals, big eyes and flowing hair -- gives this fairy story a deceptively pretty finish. You find out quickly, however, that these are the heartless and heedless fairies of folk legend, not the sentimental sprites beloved by the Victorians and Disney fans. A host of tiny hominid creatures must learn to survive in the forest after fleeing their former home -- a little girl who lies dead in the woods. The main character, Aurora, tries to organize the group into a community, but most of her cohort is too capricious, lazy and selfish to participate for long. There's no real moral to this story, which is refreshing in itself, beyond the perpetual lessons that life is hard and you have to be careful whom you trust. Never has ugly truth been given a prettier face.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Climate Changed: A Personal Journey Through the Science by Philippe Squarzoni
    Squarzoni is a French cartoonist who makes nonfiction graphic novels about contemporary issues and politics. While finishing up a book about France under Jacques Chirac, he realized that when it came to environmental policy, he didn't know what he was talking about. "Climate Changed" is the result of his efforts to understand what has been happening to the planet, a striking combination of memoir and data that ruminates on a notoriously elusive, difficult and even imponderable subject. Panels of talking heads dispensing information (or Squarzoni discussing the issues with his partner) are juxtaposed with detailed and meticulous yet lyrical scenes from the author's childhood, the countryside where he takes a holiday and a visit to New York. He uses his own unreachable past as a way to grasp the imminent transformation of the Earth. The result is both enlightening and unexpectedly moving.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Here by Richard McGuire
    A six-page version of this innovative work by a regular contributor to the New Yorker first appeared in RAW magazine 25 years ago. Each two-page spread depicts a single place, sometimes occupied by a corner of a room, over the course of 4 billion years. The oldest image is a blur of pink and purple gases; others depict hazmat-suited explorers from 300 years in the future. Inset images show the changing decor and inhabitants of the house throughout its existence: family photos, quarrels, kids in Halloween costumes, a woman reading a book, a cat walking across the floor. The cumulative effect is serene and ravishing, an intimation of the immensity of time and the wonder embodied in the humblest things.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Kill My Mother by Jules Feiffer
    The legendary Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist delivers his debut graphic novel at 85, a deliriously over-the-top blend of classic movie noir and melodrama that roams from chiaroscuro Bay City to Hollywood to a USO gig in the Pacific theater of World War II. There's a burnt-out drunk of a private eye, but the story is soon commandeered by a multigenerational collection of ferocious women, including a mysterious chanteuse who never speaks, a radio comedy writer who makes a childhood friend the butt of a hit series and a ruthless dame intent on making her whiny coward of a husband into a star. There are disguises, musical numbers and plenty of gunfights, but the drawing is the main attraction. Nobody convey's bodies in motion more thrillingly than Feiffer, whether they're dancing, running or duking it out. The kid has promise.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Motherless Oven by Rob Davis
    This is a weird one, but in the nervy surreal way that word-playful novels like "A Clockwork Orange" or "Ulysses" are weird. The main character, a teenage schoolboy named Scarper Lee, lives in a world where it rains knives and people make their own parents, contraptions that can be anything from a tiny figurine stashable in a pocket to biomorphic boiler-like entities that seem to have escaped from Dr. Seuss' nightmares. Their homes are crammed with gadgets they call gods and instead of TV they watch a hulu-hoop-size wheel of repeating images that changes with the day of the week. They also know their own "death day," and Scarper's is coming up fast. Maybe that's why he runs off with the new girl at school, a real troublemaker, and the obscurely dysfunctional Castro, whose mother is a cageful of talking parakeets. A solid towline of teenage angst holds this manically inventive vision together, and proves that some graphic novels can rival the text-only kind at their own game.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    NOBROW 9: It's Oh So Quiet
    For each issue, the anthology magazine put out by this adventurous U.K.-based publisher of independent graphic design, illustration and comics gives 45 artists a four-color palette and a theme. In the ninth issue, the theme is silence, and the results are magnificent and full of surprises. The comics, each told in images only, range from atmospheric to trippy to jokey to melancholy to epic to creepy. But the two-page illustrations are even more powerful, even if it's not always easy to see how they pertain to the overall concept of silence. Well, except perhaps for the fact that so many of them left me utterly dumbstruck with visual delight.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Over Easy by Mimi Pond
    When Pond was a broke art student in the 1970s, she took a job at a neighborhood breakfast spot in Oakland, a place with good food, splendid coffee and an endlessly entertaining crew of short-order cooks, waitresses, dishwashers and regular customers. This graphic memoir, influenced by the work of Pond's friend, Alison Bechdel, captures the funky ethos of the time, when hippies, punks and disco aficionados mingled in a Bay Area at the height of its eccentricity. The staff of the Imperial Cafe were forever swapping wisecracks and hopping in and out of each other's beds, which makes them more or less like every restaurant team in history. There's an intoxicating esprit de corps to a well-run everyday joint like the Imperial Cafe, and never has the delight in being part of it been more winningly portrayed.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Shadow Hero by Gene Luen Yang and Sonny Liew
    You don't have to be a superhero fan to be utterly charmed by Yang and Liew's revival of a little-known character created in the 1940s by the cartoonist Chu Hing. This version of the Green Turtle, however, is rich in characterization, comedy and luscious period detail from the Chinatown of "San Incendio" (a ringer for San Francisco). Hank, son of a mild-mannered grocer, would like to follow in his father's footsteps, but his restless mother (the book's best character and drawn with masterful nuance by Liew) has other ideas after her thrilling encounter with a superhero. Yang's story effortlessly folds pathos into humor without stooping to either slapstick or cheap "darkness." This is that rare tribute that far surpasses the thing it celebrates.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Shoplifter by Michael Cho
    Corinna Park, former English major, works, unhappily, in a Toronto advertising agency. When the dissatisfaction of the past five years begins to oppress her, she lets off steam by pilfering magazines from a local convenience store. Cho's moody character study is as much about city life as it is about Corinna. He depicts her falling asleep in front of the TV in her condo, brooding on the subway, roaming the crowded streets after a budding romance goes awry. Like a great short story, this is a simple tale of a young woman figuring out how to get her life back, but if feels as if it contains so much of contemporary existence -- its comforts, its loneliness, its self-deceptions -- suspended in wintery amber.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Through the Woods by Emily Carroll
    This collection of archetypal horror, fairy and ghost stories, all about young girls, comes lushly decked in Carroll's inky black, snowy white and blood-scarlet art. A young bride hears her predecessor's bones singing from under the floorboards, two friends make the mistake of pretending to summon the spirits of the dead, a family of orphaned siblings disappears one by one into the winter nights. Carroll's color-saturated images can be jagged, ornate and gruesome, but she also knows how to chill with absence, shadows and a single staring eye. Literary readers who cherish the work of Kelly Link or the late Angela Carter's collection, "The Bloody Chamber," will adore the violent beauty on these pages.

  • Recent Slide Shows

Comments

0 Comments

Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>