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French solar road
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Corporate welfare goes green

Bailing out the banks is probably the most obvious form of corporate welfare today.  While millions of families are obliged to turn to foodbanks to feed themselves, the high priests of finance hold out their hands and our political “representatives” hand over billions of pounds, dollars and euros in the vain hope that the people who got us into this mess might somehow find a way out.

But corporate welfare is an insidious form of corruption that finds its way into every nook and cranny of the body politic.  It is the IT company that promises the politicians that it can build a single system for health records for the UK.  It is the private prison provider that fails to pay for sufficient appropriately trained and paid staff to prevent rioting.  It is the private rail provider that proves signally incapable of providing a reliable commuter service.  It is the employment support agency that takes billions of pounds to get fewer people into work than would have happened if they had been left to their own devices.  No doubt readers can come up with their own long list of local corporate handouts to companies that promised the earth, trousered the money then failed to deliver.

We know how this works.  Some company offers the politicians a shiny new scheme that will be popular with the electorate in exchange for a hefty grant, subsidy, franchise or contract.  The result is almost always the same – the end result fails to live up to the promises and the taxpayer is left to pick up the tab; by which time, of course, the politicians responsible have moved on.

For the most part, we can spot corporate welfare BS from a mile away.  We understand almost instinctively, for example, that hydraulic fracturing is a corporate welfare scheme aimed at parting hapless investors from their cash while attracting a raft of public grants and subsidies.  We can be certain that fracking will deliver nothing even remotely like the 50 years of gas that its proponents claim.  We sense that the British taxpayer is being sold a pup, and is going to end up with a useless gas-powered energy system without the fuel to run it.

But there is one area where otherwise sensible people have a blind spot to corporate welfare.  That area is, of course, so-called “green energy”.  For the moment, anyone who promises green energy in exchange for a state handout is afforded uncritical public approval.  Nowhere is this blind spot more easily exposed than in the recent French decision – against good engineering principles – to spend five million euros building its first kilometre of solar roadway – something that has produced ripples of ecstasy through the ranks of environmentalists who really ought to know better.

solar roadways take a solar power sector that can currently out-compete fossil fuels, and make the price so expensive that coal and gas become economically viable once more

The first thing to note here is that this is not a new technology.  We already know how to do solar energy.  We already know what works and what does not.  Using both large scale solar collector plants and solar farms, we have already moved solar energy to the point where it can compete with fossil fuels in electricity generation.  Even rooftop solar panels are now sufficiently cost-effective to make them a commercially viable means of saving (Grid) energy.  Perhaps the two most important lessons that we learned in getting to where we are today are first, solar panels work when they are angled toward the sun (so laying them pointing up on a flat surface is just plain stupid); and second, that it is never sensible to put something – like 2,000 vehicles a day – on top of them.

At this point, many people will claim that at least a solar road is generating some green energy.  This misses the (economic) point.  Even taking the company’s optimistic projected energy return (and there is every reason to expect that a couple of months of hard-driving will severely impair the output) the solar roadway comes in at a cost of 17 euros per kilowatt compared to just 1.30 euros for rooftop solar.  Let me put that another way – solar roadways take a solar power sector that can currently out-compete fossil, and make the price so expensive that coal and gas become economically viable once more.

The winners from this kind of green corporate welfare are pseudo-green energy companies that get to dine out at taxpayers’ expense, together with the incumbent fossil fuel industry that no longer needs to worry about competition from solar power.

Just as a thought experiment, imagine the results if the French government had spent that five million euros fitting 3,000 south- and west-facing solar panels on the rooftops of Tourouvre instead of on the road where lorries and cars can destroy them and where bad weather can seriously mess with the electronics.  This would amount to a significant cut in fossil fuel use (you see the vested interest?) in the village; together with a further cut in the cost of solar energy.

If, on the other hand, you continue to believe that solar roadways are anything other than a corporate welfare scam, then I have a solar-powered bridge that you might be interested in buying.

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