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The Green Economy Will Easily Overcome Solyndra's Bankruptcy

09/19/2011 08:23 am ET | Updated Nov 19, 2011
  • Steven Cohen Executive Director, Columbia University's Earth Institute

The bankruptcy of the solar cell maker Solyndra, despite massive federal loan guarantees, has analysts and pundits declaring the demise of the green job movement. Don't look now, but I think the corpse is breathing. One bankruptcy will not kill the trend toward green jobs.

Moreover, the failure of a private company is not a rarity in the United States. Typically over 50,000 businesses file for bankruptcy every year. From June 2009-June 2010 this number approached 60,000. Without question the Solyndra loan was a bad idea. However, the sustainability movement in the United States is a primary driver of economic growth, and one high profile failure does not alter that reality.

Part of the problem is the definition of "green jobs." All of the work involved in managing, designing and implementing reductions in energy, water and resource use are green jobs. All of the workers devoted to preventing or mitigating environmental pollution hold green jobs. In New York and California, major efforts to enhance energy efficiency are now underway and are creating lots of opportunity for jobs and growth. A company I advise, Willdan Energy Solutions, works with utilities and commercial businesses to help them reduce energy waste. In both California and New York a surcharge on our electric bills goes into a fund that is used to help businesses and households eliminate wasted energy. All the jobs at Willdan, their competitors, and the many contractors they work with to install energy saving technologies are green jobs.

Of course the largest stimulator of green jobs in the world is probably Walmart. This company asks all of its 100,000 suppliers to examine their carbon footprint and use of natural resources. This drive for sustainability is good for Walmart's image, but is also good for their bottom line. Products that are more efficiently produced cost less. Products that use less packaging are cheaper to ship and also use less of Walmart's scarce shelf space. All of this helps Walmart's bottom line. All of the jobs created to make Walmart and its suppliers more resource-efficient are green jobs.

Green jobs are the future as we learn to make our economy more sustainable. Anyone thinking seriously about a planet of seven billion people realizes that we need to move our economic consumption from our dependence on finite resources to the use of resources that can be reused or re-grown. Obviously, loaning money to companies to subsidize solar manufacturing is a weak policy prescription. Government money would be better spent funding basic research into the technology of renewable energy, waste treatment, recycling and water filtration. I am far from the first to observe that a tax on fossil fuels could generate the funds for this research and hasten the day when renewable energy is less expensive than fossil fuels. That day will come, but it is in America's economic and foreign policy self-interest to bring that day sooner rather than later.

If we are to develop the high production and high consumption economy needed to enable seven or eventually ten billion people to live like many of us do here in America, we need a sustainable economy. That is an economy that does not use up the planet's finite resources or poison the air, water and food that the biological creatures called human beings require. Building this sustainable economy will require massive amounts of technological and managerial innovation. We do not yet have the technology or organizational capacity to build a sustainable economy. But it is urgent that we learn how to develop the ability to build a green economy as soon as possible.

There's a simple reason for the need for speed. We seem to be making more and more people, but we haven't figured out a way of making more planet. Technology has enabled us to improve the productivity of the planet, but if we destroy the ecosystems that sustain life, we will threaten our own survival.

Everyone knows the planet is getting more crowded. Traffic and congestion are getting worse, not better, in many places. The answer is to make better use of the resources we have. New York City loses substantial amounts of water between the time it leaves the reservoirs to the north and the time it comes out of local faucets. That will be improved when the multibillion dollar third water tunnel is fully operational. Similarly, investment in a smart grid electrical system would improve the efficiency of power distribution.

It's important that we don't derive the wrong lesson from Solyndra's bankruptcy. A failed subsidy doesn't mean that all subsidies are bad. A poorly thought-out public policy does not mean we need to abandon public policies and let the market determine everything. The private market is a powerful force in the drive for a sustainable economy. We are seeing many companies looking to reduce their use of energy, water and other resources. That is stimulating the development of new technologies and new ways of doing business. Government needs to encourage this trend. Well thought-out changes in the tax code, investments in basic R & D and even subsidized capital are all needed. Poorly thought-out, symbolic, politically motivated and possibly corrupt government programs should be avoided.

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