renewable energy subsidies

Will clean energy dump the perception that it's too costly?

The concept that clean energy costs more than fossil fuels appears to be getting more holes by the day.

Energy efficiency retrofits provide companies near immediate relief, and even the feds predict the apples-to-apples price of solar will reach grid parity -- as in costing the same as run-of-the-mill utility power -- within five years.

But nothing offers the crystal clarity of this statistic, spelled out in big bold numbers by the International Energy Agency in a report released this summer. The IEA says its analysis has revealed that fossil fuel consumption subsidies amounted to $557 billion in 2008.

That's big money. Really big money.

Green energy, by comparison, gets a pittance. London-based research group Bloomberg New Energy Finance says, "governments last year gave $43 billion to $46 billion of support to renewable energy through tax credits, guaranteed electricity prices known as feed-in tariffs and alternative energy credits."

Perspective is everything. And the amount attached to fossil fuels is likely quite conservative. The IEA didn't factor in the cost of wars, environmental degradation and human suffering, not to mention the huge amounts traditional energy companies spend lobbying governments for favorable treatment.

Andrew Winston, author and environmental strategist, laid it all out on Huffington Post. "That 12-to-1 ratio of dirty-to-clean subsidies is surely understated," Winston wrote, also pointing that "the notion that fossil fuels do not rely on subsidies is absurd."

Winston argues that the fear that a green economy will kill existing jobs is short-sighted. He said that indeed some jobs will suffer -- those in the oil and coal industries perhaps. But studies have shown green energy has the potential to produce millions of new jobs.

Surveys of private sector corporations and small business show increased spending on energy efficiency and about a third hiring to beef up environmental departments. A study showed building green costs about the same as conventional methods and that more companies and businesses are signing on.

And earlier this year, a U.S. Department of Energy-funded report titled "Energy Efficiency Services Sector: Workforce Education and Training Needs" said the "green" sector will grow four-fold by 2020 to about 1.3 million jobs.

Many people out there may be wondering when and where, especially those out of work or in jobs that pay a fraction of their former salaries. The answer is uncertain and depends on a number of unpredictable variables.

But something will happen.

For instance, a recent story in Time says Recovery Act stimulus funds -- although slow to reach the public in many forms -- have served as a giant venture capital fund.

Michael Grunwald writes, "The Recovery Act is the most ambitious energy legislation in history, converting the Energy Department into the world's largest venture-capital fund. It's pouring $90 billion into clean energy, including unprecedented investments in a smart grid; energy efficiency; electric cars; renewable power from the sun, wind and earth; cleaner coal; advanced biofuels; and factories to manufacture green stuff in the U.S.

"The act will also triple the number of smart electric meters in our homes, quadruple the number of hybrids in the federal auto fleet and finance far-out energy research through a new government incubator modeled after the Pentagon agency that fathered the Internet."

Grunwald acknowledges the poor performance of the weatherization program, which has so far show paltry progress, especially in California with .03 percent of stimulus funds spent as of earlier this summer. But he says its effect is unprecedented in the green sector.

Also joining in on the private sector have been big players like Wal-Mart. It pledges to seek sustainability and urges all its suppliers to do the same. It's a business decision.

"Creating new technologies and products, building greener buildings and businesses, and just plain using less energy to do it all: those actions will make almost all companies more profitable," Winston said.