I nearly spit my coffee out when I saw this brief CNBC segment on whether the government should be acting like a venture capitalist when it comes to startup energy companies — like bankrupt, scandalized Solyndra. Eamon Javers strikes me as a good reporter, but he zipped through the question and gave me the impression that CNBC hasn't fully figured out what the Department of Energy is trying to do in the renewable energy industry
The DOE just approved two new solar-related loan guarantees, of the sort that Solyndra received (Solyndra got $535 million and drew on $527 of it before declaring bankruptcy). Mesquite Solar got $337 million and Tonopah received $737 — both as the DOE's program was officially winding down.
Both are also doing some fairly out-there stuff. The Tonopah project, according to the DOE, is a "110 megawatt concentrating solar power tower generating facility with molten salt as the primary heat transfer and storage medium. It will be the first of its kind in the United States and the tallest molten salt tower in the world." Here's a picture of what it might look like and a rundown of how it will work.
This chart is from a lengthy analysis of government energy subsidies by Nancy Pfund and Ben Healey, published by DBL Investors. You don't have to a be math genius to unpack its message (which is backed up by numerous other charts and graphs in the report): renewable energy has been subsidized to a far lesser degree than oil and gas, nuclear, and even biofuels.
Over the period of time it's been subsidized, the renewables sector has cost about $395 million per year. Nukes, subsided for a much longer period, averaged $3.57 billion. And oil and gas averaged $4.91 billion.
Before you get all shocked at the unfairness of it all, remember that oil and gas have always been so important to the economy that subsidizing both at such high historic levels made sense. The cheap energy provided built an economy measured in the multi-trillions.
Calpers, the giant California state pension fund currently valued at $219 billion, is in a difficult position. This is from a Bloomberg story about the fund struggling to hit its 7.75 percent expected yearly return for 2010:
“That’s going to be tough this year and maybe for the next few years,” Calpers Chief Investment Officer Joe Dear said in a Bloomberg Television interview today. “This low-return environment is structurally driven, and there’s not a lot of policy to move it.”
In fact, it could be tougher than Dear is letting on. Calpers is only 70 percent funded, according to Bloomberg. That doesn't mean the fund can't pay out benefits. But it does mean that there's a mismatch between how much it has and how many employees are and will be relying on it. Calpers was fully funded in 2007, but the financial crisis has been hard on it.
Early jobless-claim numbers for September surprise forecasters. But it could all be a cruel ruse by the economy: "'Apart from what might be an anomaly, the underlying trend in the labor force is still disappointing,” said Sean Incremona, a senior economist at 4Cast Inc. in New York. “There is a lot of economic uncertainty weighing on the broader economy.'" (BizWeek)
Could one person out of every 10 — the starry-eyed optimist — be right? Talk about fighting the current: "According to a Field Poll released Tuesday, 91% of California voters say the Golden State's economy is experiencing 'bad times.' It’s the third year in a row that more than 90% of voters have depicted the state's economy in a negative light." (LAT)
Business Insider's Henry Blodget does a little startup standup as the Great Aggregation Debate heats up. Just a whiff of paranoia entering the picture, however. (BI)
In this 2009 piece from Time magazine, Joe Klein provides some legalize-pot numbers:
there is an enormous potential windfall in the taxation of marijuana. It is estimated that pot is the largest cash crop in California, with annual revenues approaching $14 billion. A 10% pot tax would yield $1.4 billion in California alone. And that's probably a fraction of the revenues that would be available — and of the economic impact, with thousands of new jobs in agriculture, packaging, marketing and advertising. A veritable marijuana economic-stimulus package!
That Joe Klein! He's hilarious when he's high! Actually, his $1.4 billion tally for Cali may substantially underestimate how much making the wacky tabacky legal could bring in. Here's why:
- The Patt Morrison Show recently did a very popular segment on a RAND study that says crime actually goes UP in neighborhoods where marijuana dispensaries are shut down. More crime means more prosecutions, which cost money.
- Back in 2003, a Boston University economist took a look at the legalization economics in Massachusetts and figured savings from not having to continue criminal enforement at $120 million per year. He's now at Harvard.
- Fewer prosecutions means fewer sentences, which mean less incarceration. Each prisoner in the system costs California an average of $47,000 per year, according to the Legislative Analyst's Office
- There are some concerns that legalization would cause the price of pot to collapse. But that could just be a brief downturn, as marijuana finds a larger audience and, like other agricultural products, moves away from small-scale to industrial production. How big could that get? Altria, the company that owns Philip Morris, has a market cap of $54 billion.