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Renewable Energy, Enviros and New Job Creation

The global warming (search) controversy took a new twist this week. Global warming handwringers are now trying to make it a "jobs" issue. 

"Investing in renewable energy such as solar, wind and the use of municipal and agricultural waste for fuel would produce more American jobs than a comparable investment in the fossil energy sources in place today," a new report from researchers at the University of California at Berkeley states. The report was accompanied by a call from a coalition of environmental activist and labor groups for a 10-year, $300 billion program to increase the nation's use of renewable energies (search).

Probably not coincidentally, California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson issued a joint recommendation this week for more renewable energy use in part to "create lasting jobs." The Berkeley researchers say that increasing renewable energy use, mostly agricultural biomass burning (search), could create as many as 240,000 new jobs by 2020. That's compared with only about 75,000 new jobs if the nation sticks to fossil fuels, according to the researchers. 

But even giving the Berkeley researchers the benefit of the doubt, renewable energy as a jobs issue is downright silly. Our recovering economy added 308,000 jobs in March alone. Who cares about a comparatively measly 240,000 jobs that only might be added over the next 16 years? 

Regardless, significant reliance on renewable energy in the foreseeable future is essentially a pipedream, according to Dr. Tom Wigley of the National Center for Atmospheric Research (search). Wigley, by the way, is one of those scientists who firmly believes in global warming.  

About a year-and-half ago, Wigley and some of his colleagues laid bare the dubious prospects for renewable energy in an article in the journal Science.With respect to solar power, Wigley said current U.S. energy consumption would require an array of photovoltaic cells (search) covering 26,000 square kilometers; worldwide energy consumption might require about 220,000 square kilometers of photovoltaic cells. These requirements would triple by 2050. Unfortunately, however, "all the photovoltaic cells shipped from 1982 to 1998 would only cover about three square kilometers," according to Wigley.

Space-based solar power (search) might require less than 25 percent of the area of land-based photovoltaic cells. But even with adequate research investments, that technology wouldn't deliver energy to global markets until the latter half of the century.

Wind power (search)? Forget it, says Wigley. "It's often available only from remote or offshore locations," he said. Bio-fuels (search), the chief hope for those 240,000-jobs-by-2020, aren't the answer either for the same reason as all other forms of renewable energy — they take a lot of space to produce only a little energy, said Wigley.

More ridiculous still is the notion that it's actually a good thing to employ more people to produce a given amount of energy. I realize that economics is not a strong suit of environmental activists, but "labor productivity" — the value of output per unit value of labor — is a pretty basic concept. It's generally desirable to be more productive, not less. We want to produce more energy per worker rather than having more workers producing less energy. Workers thus freed from producing energy can then go on to do other productive work.

Renewable energy as a "jobs" issue is another laughable example of how environmental activists want to take us backward to the future. Under the ill-fated Kyoto Protocol (search), the environmentalists would have had us cut back on energy use by about one-third by 2010. But economies need more energy, not less, in order to grow. And jobs tend to be produced by sustained economic growth.

What will the enviros think of next? How about that fantasy of Al Gore's espoused in his book "Earth in the Balance" — a ban on the internal combustion engine (search)? Think of all the jobs that would need to be created to clean the horse dung off the streets.

Steven Milloy is the publisher of JunkScience.com, an adjunct scholar at the Cato Institute and the author of Junk Science Judo: Self-Defense Against Health Scares and Scams (Cato Institute, 2001).

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