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When Did Progress Become a Partisan Issue?

Political debate over the direction of United States energy and technology policy is obviously nothing new. But in recent weeks, two news items jumped out for me from the usual political cacophony:

News item 1: Republicans introduce bills in the House and Senate to repeal the 2007 federal law requiring 25-30 percent more energy-efficient light bulbs starting next year. Republicans in four state legislatures also offer bills to exempt their states from the mandate.

News item 2: As the new majority in the House,  Republicans have replaced the House cafeteria’s compostable cutlery and cups, introduced under ex-Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s Green the Capitol initiative, with the previously used plastic and polystyrene versions.

It’s one thing to disagree about tax incentives for the wind and solar industries, subsidies for the extraction of fossil fuels, the future role of nuclear power, the strictness of building efficiency standards, or countless other issues that will determine our energy future. But it seems like quite another thing to actually turn back the clock on progress already made.

“It’s just symbolism, but symbolism of the worst kind,” says Alan Salzman, CEO and managing director of clean-tech funder Vantage Point Venture Partners, of the compostable cutlery replacement. “While they’re at it, why don’t they put a nuclear plant in the basement?” One Congressman, Oregon Democrat Earl Blumenauer, was equally sarcastic with a Tweet: “I can hardly wait for the lead paint.”

What exactly is going on here?

In President Obama’s State of the Union address in January, he spoke of the U.S. need to “win the future” by stepping up our investments in education and technology R&D, including clean-energy technologies. Let’s see—America embracing the leading edge of innovation, leading the world in new technologies, as we’ve done in so many other tech revolutions throughout history—can any politician really be against this?

Apparently so.

Take the humble light bulb. Yes, the good old incandescent bulb is a venerable icon of Yankee ingenuity – the transformative product of one legendary American’s forward-thinking vision and above all, hard work. (It was Thomas Edison who famously said, “Genius is one percent inspiration and 99 percent perspiration.”). The incandescent bulb was perfected by Edison (the concept had been around for 50 years already) in 1879. Isn’t it time to move on?

Former President George W. Bush seemed to think so when he signed the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007 into law, after it had overwhelmingly passed both houses of Congress with bipartisan support. That law included new efficiency standards for light bulbs as well as transportation and buildings, training programs for green jobs, funding for smart-grid initiatives, and many other measures. Contrary to the oppositional rhetoric now being thrown around, the law does not “ban” incandescent bulbs—it sets new efficiency standards that are easier to meet with newer compact fluorescent light (CFL) or especially light-emitting diode (LED) technologies.

That’s how you win the future – establish a policy goal for the common good, then let innovators, entrepreneurs, and investors fight it out to create the best, most cost-effective products to win in the marketplace. LED lighting, one of the five top trends spotlighted by Clean Edge in our Clean Energy Trends 2011 report released last month, is now a red-hot industry sector. Vantage Point alone has five LED-related startups in its portfolio: Bridgelux, Huga Optotech, glo AB, Light-Based Technologies, and a stealth company currently called Superbulbs.

But, cry opponents, Americans don’t want to be told what kind of light bulbs to buy. Well, the market has already rendered its verdict here. More than 70 percent of Americans have replaced at least one incandescent bulb with a CFL or LED, according to a USA Today/Gallup poll in February, and 84 percent say they are satisfied or very satisfied with the results. Walmart and Sam’s Club have sold more than 350 million CFL bulbs—somehow, I don’t think all the buyers are climate-change activists. In the USA Today/Gallup poll, 61 percent of Americans say the 2007 law is good, while just 31 percent say it’s bad. And light-bulb manufacturers overwhelmingly support it, too.

Some may point out that we’ve seen the ‘turn back the clock on progress’ theme before, citing President Ronald Reagan’s decision to remove Jimmy Carter’s solar PV panels (recently restored by Obama, after much public pressure) from the White House roof. But historical research shows that this story did not quite happen the way it’s usually told—that Reagan came into office in 1981 and ordered the removal as one of his first official acts.

The Reagan White House actually received solar power for more than five years; the panels were removed for roof maintenance in 1986 and not replaced—without any fanfare or making of political hay. Not to excuse the move, but at the time, the price of oil was below $10 a barrel ($20 in today’s dollars), climate change was an obscure scientific theory, and China didn’t have a more than 50 percent share of the global solar PV manufacturing industry (or much of a market for anything). The world is very different in 2011, and embracing progress should be more important, and less controversial, than ever. Especially with the U.S. now officially slipping to third in the global clean-energy market behind China and Germany, according to a new report from the Pew Charitable Trusts.

In the end, I think, it’s all about framing the issues. To borrow some favorite symbols of the anti-progress movement—if you ask people whether they believe in a ‘nanny state’ that makes all your choices for you, or whether they’re willing to sacrifice convenience or pay higher prices, they’ll say no. But ask about saving energy, encouraging innovation, and creating American jobs in the industries that will define global competitiveness in the 21st century, and you’ll surely get a different response.

I know that the anti-progress naysayers have their reasons and motivations, and that partisan politics can always yield some bizarre results. But who really benefits from moving the nation backwards? Are the incandescent light bulb and plastic fork industries really critical to our future? “One of our favorite phrases at Vantage Point,” says Salzman, “is ‘invest in the inevitable.’ Does anyone think that fossil-based resources will get less expensive over time? Or that your grandson or granddaughter won’t be driving an electric car, powered by a smart grid? I want us to lead in the 21st century industries, not the 20th or 19th century ones.”

Why is it so hard for some people to agree with that?

Wilder is Clean Edge's senior editor, co-author of The Clean Tech Revolution, and a blogger about clean-tech issues for the Green section of The Huffington Post. E-mail him at wilder@cleanedge.com and follow him on Twitter at Clint_Wilder.

 

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