January 26, 2018 Read More →

Commentary: ‘The Economics of Dirty Old Men’

New York Times:

Over the past decade or so there has been a remarkable technological revolution in energy production. Part of that revolution has involved the rise of fracking, which has made natural gas cheap and abundant. But there have also been stunning reductions in the cost of solar and wind power.

Some people still think of these alternative energy sources as hippy-dippy stuff that can’t survive without big government subsidies, but the reality is that they’ve become cost-competitive with conventional energy, and their cost is still falling fast. And they also employ a lot of people: Over all, there are around five times as many people working, in one way or another, for the solar energy sector as there are coal miners.

But solar gets no love from Trump officials, who desperately want the country to stay with dirty old power sources, especially coal. (Wait — when I called them dirty old men, did you think I was talking about payoffs to porn stars? Shame on you.) They’ve even rewritten Energy Department reports in an attempt to make renewable energy look bad.

They’ve tried to turn their preference for dirty energy into concrete policy, too. Last fall, Rick Perry, the energy secretary, tried to impose a rule that would in effect have forced electricity grids to subsidize coal and nuclear plants. The rule was shot down, but it showed what these guys want. From their point of view, destroying solar jobs is probably a good thing.

Why do Trump and company love dirty energy? Partly it’s about the money: what’s good for the Koch brothers may not be good for America (or the world), but it’s good for G.O.P. campaign finance. Partly it’s about blue-collar voters, who still imagine that Trump can bring back coal jobs. (In 2017 the coal industry added 500, that’s right, 500 jobs. That’s 0.0003 percent of total U.S. employment.)

It’s also partly about cultural nostalgia: Trump and others recall the heyday of fossil fuels as a golden age, forgetting how ghastly air and water pollution used to be. But I suspect that it’s also about a kind of machismo, a sense that real men don’t soak up solar energy; they burn stuff instead.

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