Why US & China, and not Europe, will Enjoy the Green Technology Bonanza

I’m still reading “Carbonomics” and, whilst mulling over some of Stoft’s (plot spoiler alert) somewhat unconvincing arguments for a carbon “untax” (actually it’s just a regular tax, the un- is an attempt to circumvent the public perception problem), I’ve had a rather nasty thought.

The question is, do aggressive policies of high fossil fuel prices and/or high green energy subsidies or passive policies of low fossil fuel prices and/or low green energy subsidies most favour the development of renewable energy technologies? My argument assumes that in Europe, fossil fuels will be kept expensive due to taxes, carbon trading and so on and renewable energy will be heavily subsidised, whereas in US (& China etc) fossil fuels will remain cheap and there will be limited subsidies.

Obviously my assumption is an over-simplification. In particular, there are sectoral differences, with transport fuels particularly expensive in Europe. But I’m trying to develop a general argument here, so bear with me.

Now, high fuel prices (and renewable subsidies) will encourage the early development of alternatives. So we see, for example, early leaders in solar appearing in Germany and wind in Denmark. Risk-free profits are a wonderful incentive!

But what market conditions will encourage the large-scale roll-out of renewable energy technologies? Well, it’s competition that eliminates the least efficient and forces the survivors to up their game. And, I suggest, competition is going to be most intense where energy prices are lowest and subsidies the most difficult to obtain.

Consider. If, say, two wind power technology players start out and are successful in selling in their home markets, the US and Germany, which will most easily penetrate the other’s market?

The US company will definitely be able to sell in the tough conditions for renewable technology in the US. The German company, on the other hand, has demonstrated only that it can sell in the easier German market with a higher cost of carbon and feed-in tariffs.

Obviously each case is different, and lots of other factors come into play (I’ve assumed that subsidies and fuel prices are higher in Germany than in US, which may not be the case for every renewable technology), but the company accustomed to easy sales is, in general, going to find it much more difficult to compete than the company that has had to fight harder.

The argument is related to the first-mover problem. It may not always be the case that the first company in a market ends up dominating it.

This is all rather awkward, don’t you think?

What it suggests to me is that the best policy at a national level must be not to tax fossil-fuels, nor to subsidise renewable technologies, but to limit fossil-fuel consumption and encourage renewable energy generation other than by price.

The best policy globally is to progressively reduce total use of fossil-fuels, thereby ensuring a level playing-field.

At the moment, no global policy is in place. It’s every country for itself, though there are rewards for reducing fossil-fuel dependency:
– greater energy security;
– a stronger position when a global deal is finally done, as it must eventually be if we’re not all to fry;
– the long-term economic advantage of lower cost – maximised if energy is produced most cost-effectively;
– the potential to export technology (and even energy, e.g. in the form of electricity), similarly maximised when the technology developed is most efficient.

For a country that wants to switch to home-grown renewable energy, policies that make sense therefore include:
– a progressively tighter limit on carbon emissions, implying internal emission trading;
– mandating the use of increasing proportions of renewable energy;
– removing obstacles (e.g. dysfunctional planning processes) to the production of renewable energy;
– a level playing-field for the various renewable energy technologies.

Policies that don’t make sense are those that support over-priced renewable energy:
– carbon taxes (where these price fossil-fuels more highly than necessary to achieve the desired rate of renewable energy uptake);
– feed-in tariffs, that provide guaranteed profit for renewable energy production, regardless of whether or not it is more expensive than other available technologies. Paying ~35p/kWh for electricity generated by solar PV on UK roofs, which I understand may well happen, must be one of the worst renewable energy policies that could possibly be devised.

Of course, whether you use taxes or emission limits supported by carbon-trading, there’s still the risk that if you try to go too fast you’ll spend a lot of money on renewable energy technologies that later turn out to have been very poor value for money. Another reason for insisting on global policies.

In my simplified world, renewable technologies that can survive without subsidies or inflated fossil-fuel prices are the ones that are ultimately going to dominate. Maybe this favours US and Chinese companies, even though Europe is adopting the most aggressive emission-reduction policies. Isn’t economics unfair?