Blowing jobs to China

How screwed up is U.S. energy policy? A wind farm in Texas might get stimulus money to buy Chinese technology

Published November 2, 2009 9:36PM (EST)

Why should a wind farm in Texas mostly financed by Chinese commercial banks and featuring made-in-China wind turbines get stimulus money supposedly intended to create jobs in the United States? That's the question some angry New York Times readers are asking about the project, and not without reason.

The mystery deepens further when one learns from an expose published by the Investigative Reporting Workshop run out of the School of Communication at American University, that 84 percent of the $1.05 billion in green energy grants announced by the government since Sept. 1st have gone to the American subsidiaries of foreign wind companies. Although some jobs are created during the installation and maintenance of wind farms, the great majority of wind energy jobs are associated with the manufacturing of wind turbines -- an industry currently dominated by foreign manufacturers.

The first lesson to be discerned from the Chinese wind farm example is that the twin goals of Obama energy policy -- quick ramping up of renewable energy deployment and green job creation -- don't always go hand in hand. The U.S. has a limited capacity for manufacturing state-of-the-art wind turbines -- even the American leader, G.E., is looking for ways to cut costs by offshoring production. If your goal is to encourage the creation of as many new wind farms as possible, you will not get there by waiting around for American companies to get their turbine production lines going.

But there's a second, more important lesson. The countries that dominate turbine production: Spain, Denmark, Germany, and soon, China, all made substantial government commitments to support renewable energy development long before the U.S. got around to realizing that this could be an important strategic goal. Perhaps influenced by right-wing economists who argued that simply waiting for rising energy prices to create the proper incentives was the best way to conduct energy policy, generations of American politicians dithered and avoided doing anything substantial.

Now, the U.S. finds itself in a weak position. Catching up with, or surpassing, the likes of China will be increasingly difficult in the decades to come. The U.S. may already have lost its opportunity to be the pace-setter in clean-energy technology. To my mind, that's something a lot more worth getting angry about than whether stimulus money is inadvertently creating jobs in China.

By Andrew Leonard

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

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