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Margaret Wente (Curtis Lantinga)

Margaret Wente

(Curtis Lantinga)

MARGARET WENTE

Message to McGuinty: Most green-job schemes have been miserable failures Add to ...

Dalton McGuinty has hit the campaign trail, and he’s paving it green. Earlier this month he announced that Ontario will pump $80-million into building charging stations for electric cars. “They are peppy, they are quiet, and the thing that I like best as a father, and ultimately a grandfather, I would hope, is that they’re clean,” he said. By 2020, he hopes, one out of 20 cars in Ontario will be electrically powered.

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Meantime, Costco, the giant retailer, has pulled the plug on its electric car-charging stations, which it had installed in its California parking lots. The reason is that nobody uses them. Even China – which promised it would leapfrog the world in electric-car development – is backing off.

Ontario’s Premier believes that green energy is the magic bullet for two of our most pressing problems: global warming and job-creation. Green energy is a central plank of his election platform. He vows that wind power and solar power and other clean energy will soon create the kinds of desirable jobs and technology the auto industry once did.

Unfortunately, his timing is horrible. The rest of the world has begun to discover that the green dream is a mirage. Across the U.S., federal, state and city governments have poured zillions into green schemes. Most have been miserable failures.

The city of Seattle, for example, got $20-million from the U.S. Department of Energy to retrofit houses and make them more energy efficient. The money was supposed to create 2,000 jobs and retrofit at least 2,000 homes. But by this month, only three homes had been retrofitted and only 14 jobs created. Even the greens admit the program is a total flop.

“It’s been a very slow and tedious process,” one green leader said. “It’s almost painful, the number of meetings people have gone to. Those are the people who got jobs. There’s been no real investment for the broader public.”

In Massachusetts, the state government poured $58-million into a company called Evergreen Solar Inc. But Evergreen couldn’t compete with cheaper solar panels made in China. In March it closed its factory and laid off 800 people, and this month it declared bankruptcy. In Salinas, Calif., a company called Green Vehicles received a couple of million dollars in government grants to develop an electric car for freeways. It too went under. The mayor says the city will think twice before investing in other startups, regardless of how many jobs they’re supposed to create.

Green projects, it turns out, don’t create many jobs, and those jobs are costly. Barack Obama recently visited a plant in Michigan to tout its investment in new battery technology. The plant got grants of $300-million, and expects to create 150 new jobs. That works out to $2-million a job. Then there’s SolFocus, a company in San Jose, Calif., that produces solar panels. The mayor called it an “enormously important” development for the city’s economy,” The New York Times reported. But the company assembles its solar panels in China, and its new headquarters employs just 90 people.

During his 2008 campaign, Mr. Obama promised to create five million green jobs over the next decade. But as The New York Times reported last week, “federal and state efforts to stimulate creation of green jobs have largely failed.”

Mr. McGuinty has promised to create 50,000 jobs by the end of 2012. He says 20,000 have been created so far, and that the province has attracted $20-billion in investment.

Maybe he should take a look at Spain, which also set out to become the solar-power capital of the world. Everything went fine, so long as the subsidies kept flowing. But when the world economy went south, the Spanish government couldn’t afford them any more and pulled the plug. Bye, bye solar, and bye, bye jobs. By one reckoning, Spain spent half a million euros for each green job it created.

The moral of the story is as clear as a row of giant wind turbines on the horizon. Governments that invest in risky, expensive and unproven technologies will probably lose big. The only way they are able to lure private investment is with generous subsidies and long-term contracts. And even then, the failure rate is high. Ontario has already attracted its share of “suitcase” companies that are here so long as the money flows, and not a moment longer. And when they go belly-up, guess who’s stuck with the bills?

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