Talking Green in Yellowstone

Government-subsidized solar panels generate cheap electricity at a high cost.

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By Roger Meiners

Ever-smiling Joe Biden recently popped into Bozeman, Mont., in his carbon-spewing Boeing 757. He came by to give a talk in Yellowstone Park about green jobs, stimulus money, and the "recovery summer." Let's look at one tiny piece of the green/stimulus jobs program that the vice president and the Obama administration have been promoting.

Not far down the road from Bozeman is the village of Ennis, home to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's Ennis National Fish Hatchery. The hatchery received $179,000 in stimulus money for solar panels, its share of last year's American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.

The fish hatchery uses about 34,000 kilowatt hours (kwh) of electricity annually. At 10 cents per kwh, that means a bill of $3,400. The solar panels, we are assured, will generate 75% of the hatchery's electricity, at zero cents per kwh. Assuming so, the annual electric bill will fall by $2,550. Applying that sum to the cost, the recovery period for the solar panels (ignoring interest rates) is 70 years.

Solar panel experts say that panels have about a 25-year life, but the latest models, which no doubt are used in Ennis, may have a 40-year life. Taking that estimate, the panels leave us in the financial dark by 30 years. The rate of return looks like Las Vegas housing the past couple years.

But since the feds are footing the bill, no one will walk away from this turkey. Nevertheless, we will pay for it. Or, more accurately, our great grandchildren will pay for it, since this piddly little project is part of the trillion-dollar deficit that we are unloading on future generations. There is no reason to think that other stimulus money is spent better than the money at the Ennis National Fish Hatchery.

That's the problem with stimulus spending for green jobs: It's a financial loser. The $179,000 spent on the solar panels means that some people at a panel factory got paid, as did the folks who installed the panels. But the bang for those bucks is less than the bang you get for your buck. When you spend your money, you choose what you want. When politicos spend your money, or your grandchildren's, there is less value.

Government deficits are not necessarily evil. Sometimes, as in World War II, the deficit must go through the roof.

Then there was no choice. Today we have a choice. The megadeficits today are worsening our long run economic situation by providing low-value "investments" and sticking future generations with the tab. That's nothing to smile about.

Mr. Meiners is a senior fellow at the Property and Environmental Center in Bozeman, Mont., and a professor of economics at the University of Texas, Arlington.

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Wall Street Journal
 An economist and lawyer, Roger Meiners defends the superiority of the common law--legal traditions developed through the courts--over federal regulation. In his view, the success of markets is intertwined with the common laws strong protection for property rights. Common law protects the environment by allowing individuals to take action against...
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