Obama’s Green-Energy Mirage
American voters should not confuse hope with certitude.

A lithium automotive battery by EnerDel


President Obama is obsessed with green energy as a terrier is obsessed with a bone. He digs the issue up time and time again with a single-mindedness that is remarkable in contemporary politics. Last week, during his State of the Union address, he gnawed on that policy again, offering it to voters as the foundation of his economic recovery plan, a pillar of his foreign policy, and a hedge against global environmental catastrophe.

President Obama, of course, is not alone in this regard. For 40 years now, green energy has been one of the primary opiates of the educated elite, a drug imbibed in varying doses by politicians on both the left and right. But no president has so energetically and dramatically spent political and economic capital on green energy as has this one.

Alas, the green-energy economy is like the horizon; it’s always there before us, but it continues to recede no matter how energetically we race toward it. Yet green visionaries remain undaunted and continue to spin all manner of stories to suggest that the horizon is reachable. And that is what we got last week from President Obama.

“In three years,” the president said, “our partnership with the private sector has already positioned America to be the world’s leading manufacturer of high-tech batteries.” This appears to be wishful thinking. Only two days after President Obama’s speech, Ener1 — the parent company of EnerDel, the recipient of a $118 million federal grant to manufacture high-tech automotive batteries — filed for bankruptcy. Reported Bloomberg, “Ener1 has been affected by competing battery developers in China and South Korea, ‘which generally have a lower cost manufacturing base’ and lower labor and raw material costs, interim Chief Executive Officer Alex Sorokin said in the petition.” Manufacturers of batteries that connect to the power grid are faring no better, if last October’s bankruptcy of Beacon Power Corp., a firm that left federal taxpayers hanging for $43 million in loan guarantees, is any indication.

Even if a federal subsidy could give the U.S. some sort of advantage in battery manufacturing — so what? Only 0.2 percent of all cars sold last year in the United States — the most lucrative potential market for these batteries — were fully battery-powered. That’s because batteries powerful enough to run a car are so expensive that they are little but vanity purchases for the wealthy. The administration counsels patience; these costs, they tell us, will surely come down. But what makes them think that? The National Research Council of the National Academy of Sciences reported a few years ago that lithium-ion batteries — the sort used in electric vehicles today — are not “emerging” technologies at all but are instead rather mature technologies: “Li-ion batteries based on similar technology are already being produced in great numbers and are well along their learning curves. The steep early drop in cost often experienced with new technologies is not likely.”

“Because of federal investments,” the president claims, “renewable-energy use has nearly doubled. And thousands of Americans have jobs because of it.” This, however, is a Clintonian use of language.