Sometimes there’s much more behind a solar panel than you would expect.
Solar energy was in the news because the U.S. Congress, hoping to support U.S. production, has prohibited the Department of Defense from buying Chinese made solar technology. And yet, Chinese made solar equipment is 20% cheaper than U.S. made solar equipment. Choosing between deficit concerns and “Buy American,” you can see the answer.
Like China, Germany is a major producer of solar panel equipment while the U.S. is not. And, like the U.S., Germany subsidizes solar panel purchases. One problem, though, is that Germany is not quite the right place for the panels. As one researcher said, “The lasting legacy is a massive bill, and lots of inefficient solar technology sitting on rooftops throughout a fairly cloudy country.”
The Economic Lesson
Incentives seem to be everywhere when looking at solar power. U.S. consumers buy more because the U.S. government gives them money for buying solar technology. Meanwhile, the Chinese government makes the panels cheaper by subsidizing their manufacture.
A demand/supply graph perfectly illustrates the results. With price the y-axis and quantity the x-axis, supply shifts to the right as subsidies lower cost and encourage producers to make more. Meanwhile, demand shifts to right because buyers also receive subsidies. The result? For Chinese made solar panels, price is lower.
Sometimes the federal government spends a tax payer’s money in unexpected ways. According to the Washington Post, scientists funded by the Department of Defense are studying snakes that can fly. Slightly venomous, sort of air-slithering, these Southeast Asian snakes can glide through the air for as far as 780 feet. Our DOD wants to know how.
Thinking about the DOD and flying snakes took me to the space program. For industry and consumers, there are lots of practical examples of NASA sponsored research that have been used productively in the private sector. My favorite, though, is the golf ball with “500 dimples arranged in a pattern of 60 spherical triangles.” You can guess the benefit. Ball flight is faster and more stable.
As NY Times columnist David Leonhardt emphasized, fiscal prudence involves retaining projects that will stimulate economic growth. And as Thomas Friedman said, this takes us to “More (Steve) Jobs, Jobs, Jobs, Jobs.” To grow and diminish unemployment, we need to stimulate innovation.
The Economic Lesson
New technology and ideas propel economic growth. Economists can use production possibilities graphs to illustrate economic growth. On production possibilities graphs, a bowed out curve is drawn which illustrates a country’s maximum production capability. For example, when the ability to schedule thousands of overlapping activities is developed by NASA, licensed to a private company for commercial use, and manufacturing becomes more efficient, the production possibilities curve shifts to the right.
Maybe flying snakes research will eventually shift a production possibilities curve?