Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Bob Herbert v. The Market

Bob Herbert has a new op-ed in the NYT breathlessly applauding "green entrepreneurship" in struggling Detroit:
I found real reason to hope when a gentleman named Stan Ovshinsky took me on a tour of a remarkably quiet and pristine manufacturing plant in Auburn Hills, which is about 30 miles north of Detroit and is home to Chrysler’s headquarters. What is being produced in the plant is potentially revolutionary. A machine about the length of a football field runs 24 hours a day, seven days a week, turning out mile after mile after mile of thin, flexible solar energy material, from which solar panels can be sliced and shaped.

You want new industry in the United States, with astonishing technological advances, new mass production techniques and jobs, jobs, jobs? Try energy.

Mr. Ovshinsky knows as much or more about the development and production of alternative energy as anyone on the planet. He developed the technology and designed the production method that made it possible to produce solar material “by the mile.” When he proposed the idea years ago, based on the science of amorphous materials, which he invented, he was ridiculed.

But the thin-film photovoltaic solar panel was just one of his revolutionary ideas. He invented the nickel metal hydride battery that is in virtually all hybrid vehicles on the road today. And when I pulled into the parking lot outside his office in Bloomfield Hills, he promptly installed me in the driver’s seat of a hydrogen hybrid prototype — a car in which the gasoline tank had been replaced with a safe solid-state hydrogen storage system invented by Mr. Ovshinsky.

Within minutes, I was driving along a highway in a car that produced zero pollution. No carbon footprint whatsoever. How’s that for a wave of the future?

The point is that these (and many more) brilliant, innovative technologies are here. They are real, tangible. They exist. What’s needed now is the will to develop policies that will vastly expand these advances and radically reduce their costs. The United States should be leading the world in the creation of whole new energy technologies and industries, instead of allowing the forces of the old carbon-based industries — coal, oil, gasoline-powered vehicles — to stand obstinately in the way of real progress.

“Now,” Mr. Ovshinsky told me, “is when we have to build the new industries of the future.” He has always been driven by the desire to use science and technology to solve the real-world problems of real people, and that has meant creating employment and stopping the pollution of the planet. He and his late wife, Iris, formed a company (to become known as Energy Conversion Devices) in Detroit in 1960 with the idea of using their considerable talents, as he put it, “to do good, to change the world.”

After nearly a half-century of revolutionary innovations with the company, Mr. Ovshinsky retired two years ago to focus his attention on the difficult and time-consuming effort to make solar energy economically competitive with coal and oil. “I know solar energy can’t live up to its possibilities unless it’s a hell of a lot cheaper,” he said.

He believes he has assembled a team that, with sustained, intense work under his direction — and if sufficient funding can be secured — will bring the price of solar power below that of coal and oil within a few years.

What’s weird is that this man, with such a stellar track record of innovation on products and processes crucial to the economic and environmental health of the U.S., gets such little attention and so little support from American policy makers. In addition to his work with batteries, photovoltaics and hydrogen fuel cells, his inventions have helped open the door to flat-screen televisions, new forms of computer memory and on and on.

So when Stan Ovshinsky tells us that we should be putting our chips on hybrid and electric vehicles, and that solar and hydrogen power can be the cornerstone of an industrial renaissance in the U.S. as well as a cleaner planet, we should be listening very, very closely.

As oil defined the 20th century, new forms of energy will define the 21st. The U.S. has the opportunity, the intellectual resources and the expertise to lead the world in the development of clean energy. What we’ve lacked so far has been the courage, the will, to make it happen.
With all due respect to Mr. Ovshinksy, Herbert's column is classic liberal jibberjabber and proof positive that professional journalists should not write about US economic policy.  First, as I've pointed out several times, the US manufacturing sector is the largest in the world (by value) and was setting annual performance records before the current recession.  So Herbert's melodramatic yearning for an "industrial renaissance" completely disregards reality. You see, something needs to be "dead" before it can be "reborn," and the US manufacturing sector is far from dead. You'd think that an award-winning journalist would understand such basic rule of language and logic, but obviously Mr. Herbert doesn't.

Second, how exactly are fossil fuels "standing obstinately in the way of real progress"?  The answer: by being the cheapest, most plentiful and most efficient fuel on the planet (as Ovshinsky readily admits in his "hell of a lot cheaper" comment).  Indeed, there's nothing that the oil, gas and coal industries are doing to stifle green innovation other than - the horror! - exist and profit.  To the extreme and as-yet-unparalleled benefit of the entire world. So spare me the victimology, Mr. Herbert.

Third, if a clean fuel source that could actually compete on price and output with fossil fuels were only a "few years" away, why isn't private investment flooding in to Mr. Ovshinsky's business?  Seriously, I would cash in my 401(k) and take out a second mortgage to invest in a company that I KNEW was going to be cranking out a real, green, "economically competitive" energy alternative in the next few years.  And so would everyone else.  Yet Mr. Ovshinsky can't secure "sufficient funding" from the private sector. The fact is - and Herbert knows this - that these "potentially revolutionary" technologies are, as the descriptive makes clear, totally unproven, and their actual ability to compete with fossil fuels in the near future is far from certain.  These technologies can't even compete right now when the government (a) subsidizes the hell out of them; and (b) makes fossil fuels artificially expensive.  Herbert's solution: "American policy makers" should funnel more federal taxpayer dollars - "our chips," he euphamistically calls them - to support Mr. Ovshinsky's neat projects. 

There's only one (more) problem: the federal government is absolutely awful at picking market winners.  For some strange reason, a bunch of lawyers in Washington just can't seem to figure out which "revolutionary technology" will be the one to finally knock fossil fuels off their perch as the world's primary energy source.  The ongoing tragicomedy of US biofuels policy is a prime example of this indisputable fact.

Yet Herbert boldly insists that policymakers must have the "courage" and the "will" to throw more taxpayer debt (we have no actual "money" these days) at yet another technological "miracle."  And this time, we should ignore the market's sage counsel and just take the advice of Bob Herbert and his B.S. degree (not a joke!) from Empire State College.

I don't  know about you, but I'll keep listening to the market, thanks.

(Exit questions: How much of his own money do you think Bob Herbert has invested in Mr. Ovshinsky's business? Or does his call for "courage" apply only to other people's money?)

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