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Haley Zaremba

Haley Zaremba

Haley Zaremba is a writer and journalist based in Mexico City. She has extensive experience writing and editing environmental features, travel pieces, local news in the…

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What The 2009 Financial Crisis Can Teach Us About Going Green

COVID-19 has disrupted the global economy in a truly unprecedented fashion. This unanticipated interruption to business-as-usual and the near-unstoppable momentum of the economic industry has given the world the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to take a breather, reevaluate, and redesign our pathway forward. The Global Economic Forum has advocated for using this unique moment to engineer and embrace a “new energy order” and a “great reset.” Europe has designed green stimulus packages that place clean energy at the heart of the continent’s post-corona economic recovery and European Big Oil is transitioning to being Big Energy.

In the United States, while we are so far lagging behind much of the rest of the world in terms of a green recovery (to the extent that companies like McDonalds have directly petitioned Congress to take action on clean energy investment), a green stimulus package is at the heart of the current Presidential race and a major component of Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden’s platform.

When faced head-on with the future, it is often best practice to base world-building decision making on lessons of the past. The coronavirus may be novel, but the global economic recession is an old hat for this generation. This week, Greentech Media published an article suggesting that the global community look to “lessons from 2009 for a Green Stimulus today” -- the successes as much as the failures of our road to economic recovery a decade ago.

A number of clean energy companies funded through the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA)-- “which set out $90 billion for clean energy at the depth of that recession” -- have since gone under. These companies include Tonopah Solar Energy, Solyndra and Abound Solar. But, happily, these bankruptcies are in the minority. “Despite such failures,” writes Greentech Media, “DOE loan guarantee programs for new energy technologies — enacted during the George W. Bush administration — have been a success overall. The DOE has disbursed nearly $30 billion to new and emerging technologies, with overall portfolio losses around just 2.7 percent, which is better than that achieved by most major banks. So far, the government has already received $3.15 billion in interest payments, with less than $1 billion in actual and estimated losses.”

The program’s successes are also far more notable than its failures. Few people have heard of Tonopah Solar Energy, Solyndra, or Abound Solar, but who hasn’t heard of Tesla, one of the program’s greatest success stories? “In the decade since ARRA’s passage, the solar PV space has transformed from a nascent market to an energy-industry powerhouse as installation costs fell about 70 percent.”

Related: Saudi Oil Minister: Oil Demand Could See A 97% Recovery By The End Of 2020

The context today is vastly different than it was in 2009, but enough factors of the coming economic recession are the same that the ARRA is being considered by many as a template for a post-pandemic “green stimulus” package. The landscape has changed: solar and wind have matured and outgrown their subsidies, and the looming threat of catastrophic climate change grows closer and more dire every day. But ARRA’s successes and failures can teach us a lot about how to approach a new green stimulus: first and foremost, setting the right expectations.

“The biggest mistake we made with the loan guarantee process through the Recovery Act was failing to set the right expectations,” Boundary Stone Partners’ co-founder and partner Jeff Navin was quoted by Greentech Media. Navin worked at both the Labor Department and the Department of Energy during the Obama administration. “Every loan portfolio at every bank in America has some portion of the portfolio that doesn’t perform,” he continued.

Accepting a small and inevitable margin of failure is integral to a stimulus package being--and being seen as--successful. So while the ARRA wasn’t perfect, it was pretty darn cold, and the U.S. could do much worse than to take a page from the Bush administration’s book and inject some money into clean energy--a hugely promising sector for economic growth and jobs creation as well as planetary health--before it’s too late.

By Haley Zaremba for Oilprice.com

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Leave a comment
  • Lee James on August 22 2020 said:
    I personally advocate government investment in clean energy, but I can understand why many oppose the idea. I like the article's point about expectations. Some projects are after break-through technology and applications. The Tonopah project is one that I'm familiar with -- it's too bad that the project was such a large one. Looks like solar thermal storage using phase-change salts could have used more and smaller-scale testing.

    Hopefully we learned from clean energy projects that fell short and do it better next time. These projects are pointing in the right direction. If they fail, they just need to be honest failures and reporting about them needs to be honest too.
  • Mamdouh Salameh on August 23 2020 said:
    The 2009 financial crisis wasn’t connected in any shape or form with renewables. Therefore, it can teach us nothing about going green.

    For your information, the financial crisis was a totally American housing and financial problem that dragged the global economy and the world financial system into a precipice. It was basically caused by US investment banks getting greedily involved in both a soaring real estate market and also a booming crude oil market with oil prices hitting $147 a barrel. The trigger was the banks' offering unsecured loans to house buyers. When the real estate market collapsed, banks faced a very serious liquidity problem and were on the verge of collapse if not for the intervention of the Federal Reserve.

    The financial crisis led to a great recession where housing prices dropped more than the price plunge during the Great Depression of 1929. The recession almost caused a run on the global financial system and came within sight of bringing the global economy to its knees. This was the single most important factor behind the oil price bubble.

    The recession triggered a collapse of oil prices from $147/barrel in the summer of 2008 to $60/barrel in November 2008. However, the bottom line for both the stock market and the oil price was that the magnitude of the economic collapse turned out to be much bigger than anyone had expected.

    The financial position of the global banking system was exacerbated further by major investment banks like Goldman Sacks, Bank of America, JPMorgan Chase Bank, Standard Chartered and HSBC investing heavily in oil derivatives such as oil company stocks, oil exchange-traded funds (ETFs), oil futures and Master Limited Partnerships (MLPs).

    The Global Economic Forum like environmental activists and oil and gas asset divestment campaigners is hallucinating about a new energy order. But I can safely tell them that this isn’t going to happen throughout the 21st century and probably far beyond. Why? Because the global economy and civilization as we know and enjoy don’t exist without oil and natural gas and vice versa. The global economy will continue to run on oil and gas well into the future.

    For the record, Gordon Brown the then Prime Minister of Great Britain had at the time organized the G20 summit in London on the 2nd of April 2009 to deal with existential threats facing the global economy. With his extensive experience as a previous Chancellor of the Exchequer, he took charge of the G20 proposing measures that according to Nobel economist Paul Kruman saved the world. Former US President Barack Obama paid him a huge compliment saying “the world owes him an extraordinary debt of gratitude for his leadership on global economic recovery”.

    Dr Mamdouh G Salameh
    International Oil Economist
    Visiting Professor of Energy Economics at ESCP Europe Business School, London

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