Spain's Answer to Unemployment: Go Greener

A man walks in the
A man walks in the "solucar" solar park in Sanlucar La Mayor, near Seville, September 23, 2009. The solar thermal power plant uses mirrors to concentrate the sun's rays onto towers where they produce steam to drive a turbine, producing electricity. (Marcelo del Pozo - Reuters)
By Anthony Faiola
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, September 24, 2009

MADRID -- As world leaders converge in Pittsburgh for a major economic summit this week, one of the biggest questions they face is this: How do you begin to replace the millions of jobs destroyed by the Great Recession, now that the worst of the crisis has potentially passed?

Here on the sun-drenched and windy Iberian Peninsula, Spain thinks it has an answer: create new jobs and save the Earth at the same time.

Green jobs have become a mantra for many governments, including that of the United States. But few nations are better positioned -- or motivated -- to fuse the fight against recession and global warming than Spain. The country is already a leader in renewable fuels through $30 billion in public support and has been cited by the Obama administration as a model for the creation of a green economy. Spain generates about 24.5 percent of its electricity through renewable sources, compared with about 7 percent in the United States.

But with unemployment at 18.5 percent, the government here is preparing to take a dramatic next step. Through a combination of new laws and public and private investment, officials estimate that they can generate a million green jobs over the next decade. The plan would increase domestic demand for alternative energy by having the government help pay the bill -- but also by compelling millions of Spaniards to go green, whether they like it or not.

In the long term, the government envisions a new army of engineers and technicians nurturing windmills and solar farms amid the orange orchards and carnation fields of Andalusia and Galicia. In the short term, officials say, the renewable-energy projects and refurbishing of buildings and homes for energy efficiency could redeploy up to 80 percent of the million construction workers here who lost their jobs in 2008.

Spain's ambitious effort is being closely watched by the Obama administration and other governments forming their own green-job plans. The U.S. stimulus bill is dedicating billions in grants and loans to renewable-energy projects, marking a shift away from Washington's more passive approach to green growth, which relied largely on tax incentives.

But the bid for governments to take an ever larger role in creating jobs in the private sector -- which many leaders gathering in Pittsburgh see as their mission -- is also fraught with risks.

Though the Spanish government estimates that the alternative-energy sector generates about 200,000 jobs here, about double the number in 2000, critics contend they have cost taxpayers too much money.

In some instances, the government's good intentions have distorted the energy market.

Take, for example, the recent Spanish solar bubble.

Though wind power remains the dominant alternative energy here, the government introduced even more generous inducements in recent years to help develop photovoltaic solar power -- a technology that uses sun-heated cells to generate energy. Lured by the promise of vast new subsidies, energy companies erected the silvery silicone panels in record numbers. As a result, government subsides to the sector jumped from $321 million in 2007 to $1.6 billion in 2008.

When the government moved to curb excess production and scale back subsidies late last year, the solar bubble burst, sending panel prices dropping and sparking the loss of thousands of jobs, at least temporarily.

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