June 28th, 2009

Those comic Spaniards and their silly windmills, what a joke – if you are an ignorant nativist bumpkin. George Will not only gets his economics wrong but his cultural reference. Don Quixote is a tragi-comic prey to his romantic delusions. Not so his longsuffering sidekick and reality check Sancho Panza:

“Look, your worship,” said Sancho. “What we see there are not giants but windmills, and what seem to be their arms are the vanes that turned by the wind make the millstone go.”

la_mancha_te.jpgCredit here

La Mancha is a high, dry plateau with next to no rivers, so before the age of steam windmills were humdrum but essential pieces of equipment in its rural economy. A potted history of windmills here, and a glimpse of the sophistication here. (I’ve seen a restored water-driven grain mill in England, with a clever automatic regulator of the grain hopper.) Quixote mistakes these workhorses for fantasy enemies; and so does George WiIl mistake their equally useful modern replacements. On the practicalities, who would you rather believe: an armchair Beltway ideologue or T. Boone Pickens? Were the railroads, the interstate highway system and the global fiber-optic telecoms grid built by disembodied Walrasian arbitrage or by grubby capitalist rent-seeking?

The real, boring story is that with possibly over-generous (but now capped) subsidies for this infant industry, Spain has acquired a nifty 15GW of wind capacity, say 4-5 GW full-time equivalent; and a leading place in a booming world industry. The USA and other latecomers are free riders on the technical progress generated by Spanish and German taxpayers, so the right attitude is “Muchas gracias”.

The Spanish solar PV investment does look a bit premature and expensive. For a large subsidy, Spain has bought useful expertise in the downstream side of panel assembly, installation and control, but the critical bottleneck – and ultimate opportunity – lies in the still excessive cost of the modules: and few of the people and corporations working to crack this are in Spain.

Footnote on jobs

For a very different conclusion to Will’s Professor Calzada on job creation and green investment, see the CAP report here. (I can’t download the full thing, maybe you will have better luck.)

The apparent conflict is easily explained. Energy production is very capital-intensive in operation in all its high-tech forms. Even coal doesn’t employ many: 83,000 in the USA in 2006. The low-tech “small is beautiful” exceptions – small-scale biomass, solar hot water – are useful but marginal. That being so, it’s absurd to evaluate the strategic choice of energy sources on job creation grounds. Even a dramatic shift from coal and oil to wind, solar and nuclear is not likely to have great employment consequences in the aggregate long-term equilibrium.

Investment in anything creates jobs, so replacing one form of capacity by another is good for employment. But “pushpin is as good as poetry“: liberals should not pretend that the allocation of investment, as opposed to its quantity, makes much difference overall. You can’t get round the geographical wins and losses. Culturally, it’s important to underline that renewables create proper jobs in real businesses, not part-time hobbies. And some, like wind-turbine repairman, are as macho as anything in mining or oil drilling.

Footnote 2

If you really want to know where I’ve been the last few months, the answer is here.

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