Bizarro World Comes To The Solar Industry

Fans of DC Comics and Seinfeld will remember that “Bizarro World” has come to mean a situation or setting which is weirdly inverted or opposite of expectation. This is what immediately came to mind as I was reading an article about the Spanish solar industry in yesterday’s Wall Street Journal.

After heavily subsidizing the solar industry for years, the Spanish government has now completely reversed course and is charging citizens who have the temerity to produce their own energy a fee as punishment. They don’t call it a punishment, of course, but justify it as private individuals carrying their share of the load for maintaining the national power grid. The people who installed solar panels, being good citizens and supportive of government policy, are left a bit mystified by the whole experience–which is opposite of what they expected. One wag on the WSJ Web site has characterized this as “a tax on sunlight.”

Here, in brief, is the sequence of events:

  • Spanish politicians decided that it would be “good” to artificially promote the use of uneconomic solar energy;
  • The Spanish government massively subsidized the installation of solar panels at taxpayer expense;
  • People, being people, responded to the incentives by installing solar panels;
  • The Spanish economy went into a recession which both reduced demand for power and made government subsidies of solar energy impossible to continue;
  • To balance engorged budgets the Spanish government cast around for “new revenues” and decided to tax people who were producing their own energy with solar panels.

Dutiful citizens who responded to the noble goal of reducing dependence on carbon now find themselves scratching their heads in dismay at the capriciousness of politicians. Here is how one citizen responded. “After calculating the fee’s impact, Inaki Alonso opted to give away the three solar panels he had installed on his roof early this year.” (emphasis added).

The broader lesson here is that government policy is an inconstant basis for making investment decisions, whether at the personal or corporate level. People change; policies change; circumstances change; fads come and go—but company employees still expect to receive regular paychecks and investors still expect returns, irrespective of the shifting sands of public policy. Something that has to be subsidized may never be a good investment, and the subsidy may go away.

For these reasons, I never invested in cleantech or wanted to. My partners did, but were judicious in selecting investments that were not dependent on government policy. Richard Stuebi was particularly emphatic on this point.

At the microeconomic level, it is better to pursue customers who value a company’s products and services, and will pay for them, than to pursue government subsidies as a business model. At the macroeconomic level, voters should understand the limitations of a politically driven economy. That lesson is as germane at home as it is in Spain.