Solar Energy: A Path to Prosperity?

In the midst of a prolonged economic recession we hear the cry from all quarters that the most immediate path to recovery and prosperity is through a so-called green economy. “Green” energy, “green” jobs and “green” technologies are touted everywhere, from national publications to college newspapers. Indeed, a recent article in The Minnesota Daily by Stephen Murphy-Logue goes so far to argue that “Solar Energy has the Potential to Turn Minnesota into an Economic Powerhouse.”

In support of his extravagant claim about the economic viability of solar energy, the author mentions a single fact about solar energy: that it is the most abundant form of energy on Earth. Failing to acknowledge the monumental difficulties inherent in photovoltaic energy generation and storage, especially in a state famously devoid of direct sunlight nearly 200 days per year, Murphy-Logue goes on to call for the government to mandate that a certain amount of electricity be produced directly from the sun.

Minnesota has the potential to significantly increase solar energy output in the forthcoming future. Increasing the state’s target for solar electricity—homegrown energy from the sun to power our homes and businesses—will transform Minnesota’s economy, creating good, family-supporting jobs that can’t be outsourced. We need Gov. Mark Dayton and our new Legislature to lead by setting a goal to produce 10 percent of Minnesota’s electricity from the sun by 2030.

The fact is, turning energy from the sun into the kind of power generation required for an industrialized society is extremely difficult. While the amount of energy from the sun is vast, the concentration of such energy is very low, much lower than what is available from fossil fuels. It’s perhaps unsurprising therefore that the solar energy industry largely owes its existence to government mandates, subsidies and other artificial incentives of the kind the author proposes.

How does the fact that solar energy is the most abundant on earth support the claim that it can be used as an endless engine of economic growth? Solar energy’s spectacular failure to compete with fossil fuels precludes it from being an easy ticket to economic prosperity. In every developed country, it was abundant cheap energy that spurred massive production and economic growth. If solar energy were truly the key to making a perpetually cloudy state into an “economic powerhouse,” it wouldn’t need government strings holding it up.

In discussing similar energy mandates imposed by the State of Colorado, Ari Armstrong discusses the old economic fallacies that are being recycled by proponents of a “green” economy.

Corporate welfare does not just fall from the sky. It comes from taxpayers. That money is no longer available to those who earned it to create jobs and support businesses in other sectors. While [Colorado governor] Ritter creates jobs with one hand, he destroys them with the other. The difference is that the jobs Ritter creates serve political interests rather than the interests of consumers.

Consider, as Bastiat might do, the logical absurdities of Ritter’s position. If mandating “new” energy creates jobs, then why stop at 30 percent? Why not 100 percent? Why not expand subsidies 1,000 fold? Why not outlaw all coal, oil and natural gas in Colorado, and force every property owner to install solar panels and windmills? Think of all the new jobs that would require!

As Armstrong points out, any government action taken to promote the use of solar energy must be paid for, and that money necessarily comes from the pockets of American citizens—citizens who would otherwise be able put that money to more productive uses.

But government cannot achieve prosperity by force-feeding us a green energy paradise. It is a historical fact that the periods of highest material prosperity have only been attained when men were left free to engage in production and trade without interference from the government. But what has happened when governments have attempted to impose their own vision of a prosperous society upon their people? Never have such schemes delivered on their claims of greater production, wealth and happiness, and too often they result in just the opposite. Why should we expect that government mandated “solar prosperity” would be any different?

Prosperity does not result from any particular policy, technology, or institution. Ultimately, everything that makes a society prosperous has a single source: freedom. Technological engines of prosperity like gasoline, electric lighting and personal computers can be created only by individuals free to act on their own judgment. Laws mandating the use of solar energy do just the opposite by removing individual judgment from the equation and substituting the will of bureaucrats. In effect, these mandates make people act against their own judgment—otherwise such laws would not be required. Once the laws are in place, producers shift their efforts into finding the least painful ways of jumping through onerous government hoops, rather than to finding new ways to produce more effectively.

That laws are required in order to implement solar energy reveals not only the economic impotence of the idea, but also the injustice inherent in overriding the judgment of those who produce and consume energy. The premise that we can be forced into prosperity against our better judgment fails to grasp that it is precisely our independent judgment that makes prosperity possible.

Alexander Hrin completed his Bachelor’s in Engineering Physics and Masters in Applied Physics from the Colorado School of Mines. He is currently enrolled in the Biophysics PhD program. University of Michigan as well as in the third year of the Objectivist Academic Center.

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