Bioenergy, Geothermal, Hydropower, Solar, Wind Power

Moving Renewable Energy from the ‘Green Ghetto’ to Mainstream America

Far away from mainstream America, there is a lonely, sun-bleached and wind-swept place filled with partisanship, accusatory rhetoric and strict adherence to ideology. That place is the Green Ghetto.

Until recent years, many members of the environmental and clean energy movement lived in this enclosure, building higher walls and burning bridges to the rest of the country. But now, an intellectual awakening is occurring in this Green Ghetto — a new era of cooperation and solidarity based on political, economic and technological progress. It is, by many accounts, a Revolution.

“The Clean Energy Revolution is well underway,” said Vijay Vaitheeswaran, Environment and Energy Correspondent for the Economist, speaking at the American Council on Renewable Energy’s (ACORE) annual policy conference in Washington, DC last Thursday.

That Revolution, said Vaitheeswaran, is unfolding as the environmental and business communities work together to form a coherent political message: Drastic change in the way we produce and consume energy is good for the environment and public health, good for the security of nations, and most importantly, good for business.

“We’re seeing an era of open global innovation — one of the fundamental paradigm shifts in terms of thinking about how change happens,” Vaitheeswaran said. “You are living in this era and clean energy is right at the forefront.”

The solidarity now forming among clean energy advocates, environmentalists, traditional energy companies and the financial community was evident at ACORE’s Phase II conference. The forward-looking visions of the speakers matched ACORE’s mission statement, which is to be “for renewable energy and against nothing.” That cooperative attitude is the only way to bring about a “paradigm shift” in the energy regime, said Andy Karsner, Assistant Secretary of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy at the U.S. Department of Energy.

“Use this nonpartisan urgency to educate all leaders, no matter what party they belong to or what color state they come from and make sure your agenda doesn’t get pigeon-holed into that Green Ghetto where somebody can describe it as something less than the moral imperative of our time,” Karsner told the attendees.

The Green Ghetto, he said, is where problems are identified but not solved. Now, as governments all over the world make critical decisions about our energy future, the industry needs to stay away from an “us versus them” mentality and avoid marginalizing renewables as an “alternative” to other forms of energy.

“Focus not on who you can make a villain, but focus on the opportunity to reach across the aisle where ever you find it and create a new coalition of people who can give realization to our national aspirations and get way beyond the rhetoric of the past,” said Karsner.

Lessons from Europe

There was, of course, a heavy emphasis on Europe, which surpassed the U.S. as a leader in renewable energy in the 1990’s as countries there took more aggressive political action. The European Union (EU) has set targets for a 20% increase in energy efficiency, a 20% decrease in greenhouse gas emissions and a 20% renewable energy penetration level by 2020. While there are questions about whether some member countries can live up to their procurement obligations, this strong support for renewable energy is creating a more predictable business climate for investors and developers — something which has been lacking in the U.S.

“There’s lessons to be learned and practices that we should look at to see if we can adopt them here,” said Michael Eckhart, President of ACORE. “We need to look seriously at the political developments in other countries to make sure that the U.S. becomes a leader in implementing renewable energy.”

But the conversation about renewable energy in Europe is still unfolding, said Oliver Schaefer, Policy Director of the European Renewable Energy Council. As the EU works out how best to meet its targets, the message from the renewable energy community needs to be about harnessing human progress, not stifling it.

“In Europe, we must come to the conclusion that what we are discussing today — the change to our energy supply structure — is something similar to a third Industrial Revolution,” said Schaefer. “It’s much more than putting the nitty gritty details here and there together…We have to go away from this battle that we had in the past of markets versus the environment to a conclusion that those who invest today in environmental technologies will be the winners of tomorrow.”

Global Industry Growth

The financial markets worldwide are responding to this message, said Michael Liebreich, President of New Energy Capital. In 2007, global public market transactions in the clean energy sector totaled over $17 billion. In addition, venture capitalists have invested over $21 billion in renewable energy companies this year — a $3 billion increase over 2006.

“The financial community is getting behind this sector. They are understanding that this is not ‘alternative’ energy, this is just what energy is going to look like in the future,” said Liebreich.

With the global development of 31 gigawatts of renewable energy this year, the future is approaching fast. According to the Worldwatch Institute, 58 countries now have renewable energy targets and 56 other countries have renewable energy “promotion policies.” As a result, the solar industry has grown by 36%, the wind industry has grown by 24% and the biofuels industry has grown by 17% over the last 5 years, creating 2.5 million jobs world wide.

“You hear this a lot lately, but it’s true: We have reached a tipping point for renewable energy. These development figures show that. But there is still a very real challenge of convincing political leaders to implement better and better policies to make growth even stronger,” said Janet Sawin, Senior Researcher and Director of the Energy and Climate Program at the Worldwatch Institute.

Evolving U.S. Policy

While industry leaders in the U.S. have been somewhat successful in pushing for more favorable renewable energy policies, there is still much more work to be done. Last month’s scare over the omission of key provisions for renewables from the latest federal energy bill is proof of that. But the Economist’s Vaitheeswaran said that the recent energy bill debacle should be a lesson for the industry. Instead of asking for more subsidies, the industry should be trying to get rid of subsidies for all energies.

“We need to have a dramatic rethink on eliminating subsidies,” said Vaitheeswaran. “When you enter the pork barrel race, the big pigs get a bigger share of what’s in the trough. That’s why I argue, you have to do the harder thing — don’t argue for subsidies, argue for a level playing field. We need to see end to subsidies also coupled with proper carbon pricing.”

However policy shakes out in the U.S. in the coming years, one thing is certain: support for clean energy is becoming more robust as a diverse coalition of renewable energy advocates emerges from the Green Ghetto and pitches a clear and positive message for change.

“We are seeing a much smarter approach to environmental thinking,” said Vaitheeswaran. “What we’re seeing across the world…is a smarter approach to economics…seeing business as a potential part of the solution and understanding that markets can be a friend of environmentalism. I think that’s a powerful tool and I see this in Beijing and Bogota as much as I see it in Boston or in Berkeley. This is a new way to think about the environment both amongst policy makers and environmentalists.”