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Standing Firm on Clean Energy in the Political 'Silly Season'

To those of us in the industry, clean-tech deployment in the U.S. is still a long way from what it could or should be. But as was seen in last week's release of Clean Edge's 2012 State Clean Energy Index, there are plenty of signs of positive momentum, especially in light of how far the industry has come from a nascent, specialized niche a decade ago. Consider the following findings from the Index, our third annual ranking of all 50 states in clean-energy leadership in technology, policy, and capital:

  • Six states, twice as many as last year, now generate more than 10 percent of their utility-scale electricity from wind, solar, and/or geothermal. Topping the list for percent of in-state, utility-scale generation from renewables in 2011 were South Dakota (22.3 percent), Iowa (18.8 percent), and North Dakota (14.7 percent).
  • The number of registered hybrid cars in the U.S. grew to nearly 2 million while all-electric vehicles neared the 50,000 registered-vehicle milestone. California had nearly half a million hybrids and more than 22,000 pure EVs registered at the end of 2011.
  • The 29 states with renewable portfolio standards, along with Washington, D.C., account for nearly two-thirds of the nation’s total generating capacity.
  • California’s clean-energy venture capital dollars in 2011 — more than $3.7 billion — exceeded the total of all the other 49 states combined.
  • Clean-energy patents granted to U.S. entities in 2011 exceeded the 1,000 mark for the first time. Such patents were granted in 32 states, although more than half of them were distributed across just three states: California, New York, and Michigan.
  • The top five states in our Index are perennial clean-energy leaders California, Oregon, Massachusetts, Washington, and Colorado. But many states from coast to coast demonstrate leadership in different aspects of clean energy. The top 25 includes such key election-year ‘swing states’ as New Mexico, Michigan, Iowa, Wisconsin, Nevada, and Pennsylvania 

Nationwide, U.S. solar installations grew 109 percent, adding 1,855 megawatts of new PV to the grid ­– thanks to falling PV prices, favorable policies in key states, and the aggressive business strategies of installers/financiers like Solar City, SunRun, and SunEdison. U.S. wind capacity grew at a solid pace as well, with 6,816 MW of new capacity good for a 27 percent increase in wind-derived electricity generation over 2010. Perhaps even more significantly, 35 percent of all new U.S. power capacity in the past five years has been from wind. 

Government and private capital poured $48.1 billion into clean energy in the U.S. in 2011 — the total among asset financing, public market, venture capital, private equity investment, and spending on small distributed projects — regaining the nation’s position as the world’s largest clean-energy investor and dethroning China, which had held the top spot for the last two years. Even the jobs picture contained good news, with research published by the Brookings Institution showing the U.S. “clean economy” as one of the labor market’s few

bright spots during the recession, growing by 8.3 percent from 2008 to 2009 — almost double the rate of the overall economy during the same time period. 

Clean tech in the U.S. obviously faces huge challenges: low-cost natural gas, unprecedented global competition in virtually every industry sector, and government budget constraints, just to name a few. But as if those very real challenges weren’t enough, the industry now has to deal with something perhaps even more daunting: being used as a political cudgel in a presidential election year. 

To hear some tell it, clean energy, with Solyndra as its poster child, is nothing more than a federal tax dollar-wasting boondoggle, lining the pockets of a few well-connected executives and creating few American jobs. The Chevy Volt is derided as the “Obamacar” (they don’t call an election year “The Silly Season” for nothing) while TV and web ads, blogs, and commentators charge that tax credits and grants “were given to foreign companies” ­— conveniently ignoring the fact that these incentives went to global wind and solar firms to build projects and employ workers in America.

Distortions in attack ads are one thing, but the anti-clean tech brigades are now having a serious impact not just on politics, but policy. Legislation has advanced in both the House and Senate that would cut the U.S. military’s research and use of biofuels, and extension of the production tax credit (PTC) for wind power, truly a make-or-break incentive for the U.S. wind industry, continues to be held hostage in the political wars. But here’s a fact: the PTC extension (hopefully before the Congressional recess in August) is supported by such tree-hugging, left-leaning organizations as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the American Farm Bureau Federation, and the National Association of Manufacturers ­— as well as Republican senators and members of Congress from states such as Arkansas, Iowa, Kansas, and North and South Dakota. Oh, but that’s just because it’s in their economic self-interest, right? You better believe it! I wonder what all these folks think about the ads attacking the clean-tech industry. 

When this column appears, I will be in Japan on a week-long, four-city speaking tour organized by the U.S. Embassy. I’ve been invited to speak about clean-tech success stories at the state and local levels in the U.S. — and what lessons the Japanese can learn in growing their own clean-energy economy after shutting down all of their nuclear plants in the wake of last year’s Fukushima disaster. Much of the rest of the world still looks to the U.S., where most of today’s clean-tech industry was born, for guidance in the way clean energy should be developed and deployed. As we anticipate the next five months of political ugliness before the November election, it’s imperative that we stand firm against partisan attacks that could damage our industry for a long time.

Image: Election sign via Shutterstock

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