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The New Greens Like It Big

Author: David G. Victor, Adjunct Senior Fellow for Science and Technology
November 29, 2008


The winds of economic destruction are flattening not just retirement accounts but also naive visions for a green economy. Public support for costly new green mandates is weakening, and government budgets to fund them are bleeding red ink. Plummeting prices of oil and other fossil fuels have made it harder for green to compete in the marketplace. IPOs of firms working on "clean tech" green energy that have fueled fantasies of the coming energy revolution have crashed to a halt. In all the bad economic news, a new face of green is coming into focus. Whereas the old view of green tech was based on many small, decentralized sources of power and a green economy that harnessed the power of the marketplace, the new version will rely more heavily on regulation and subsidies. It will also embrace the wisdom, true in most of the energy business, that bigger is better for weathering economic storms.

The market, it's now clear, is not a reliable force for driving the adoption of green technologies. Just as the role of government is rising across banking and other sectors of the economy, new green will be much more wary of market forces as the route to profit. Google dreamed, in its "RE" scheme, that if it put enough money into green renewable energy ("RE") that eventually those power sources would triumph over dirty coal. With coal prices half what they were in July and the cost of steel and concrete for building coal-fired power plants sinking, that strategy isn't looking like a winner. Supporters of renewable energy have been much more effective in affecting regulation: in most of the United States it is now nearly impossible to get approval to build new coal plants (even when they replace older, less efficient units) and half the states force power companies to buy rising amounts of renewable electricity almost regardless of cost. Obama plans to extend such mandates nationwide.

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