If Solar Is So Great, It Doesn’t Need Mandates

The environmentalist Outrage Police are at it again, this time over solar power. Specifically, a new LA Times article explains that utilities and America’s most feared brothers (since the identical twins from GI Joe) are trying to get rid of arbitrary government mandates on how much electricity must come from renewable sources, so that consumers and producers can determine how much power various sources should contribute. In their outrage over this development, progressive commentators neglect to mention this awkward fact of compulsion in their pet policy.

For example, here’s how Paul Krugman reacts to the LA Times story, in a blog post titled, “There Goes the Sun”:

Like just about everyone who has looked at the numbers on renewable energy, solar power in particular, I was wowed by the progress. Something really good is in reach.

And so, inevitably, the usual suspects are trying to kill it.

What makes it even worse is that one (not the only) reason to like the solar revolution is that it helps fight climate change. So if you’re a card-carrying conservative, who believes that climate change is the biggest, most intricate, and most incredibly successful conspiracy in history — thousands of scientists around the world, and not one of them squealing! — you want to block solar even if it saves money.

But wait a second. If “[s]omething really good is in reach,” and solar “saves money,” then why does the government have to force utilities to use it so heavily? Remember, this is what the dispute is over. Contrary to Krugman’s claim, nobody is trying to “kill” solar, rather the effort is to lift mandates requiring a minimum percentage of renewable power, and in addition to get rid of the “net metering” schemes that privilege customers with solar panels on their homes at the expense of everyone else.

You really have to marvel at Krugman’s worldview. He thinks that greedy power companies hate the planet so much that they actually will spend their own money on campaigns to make their businesses less profitable. That’s actually what Krugman must believe (or at least, what he must believe if you take his writings at face value).

For his part, Kevin Drum at Mother Jones concludes his analysis of the LA Times story in this way:

If there’s anything that liberals and conservatives ought to be able to agree on, it’s the benefit of renewable power. It’s as close to a no-brainer as you can get. But President Obama made green programs part of his stimulus package, and that was that. When tea-party hysteria took over the conservative movement, renewable energy became one of its pariahs. Griping about Solyndra is ancient history. Today’s conservatives oppose renewable energy for the same reason they’ve gone nuts over Benghazi and the IRS and Syrian rebels: to show solidarity to the cause. Welcome to modern American politics.

No, actually Mr. Drum, conservatives (and libertarians) don’t oppose renewable energy. We oppose renewable energy mandates.

It is truly shocking that Krugman and Drum can write entire blog posts without once bringing up the distinction between a certain technology (like solar power) and the government forcing people to use it.

Welcome to modern American politics—at least from the New York Times and Mother Jones.

IER Senior Economist Robert Murphy authored this post.

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