Following decades of denial of climate science by the political establishment, President-elect Obama will take office in a nation that lags behind Europe and Japan in establishing the building blocks for a carbon-neutral future. Once the world leader in renewable energy, America has ceded its place to nations whose governments have made the transition to low-carbon energy a priority.
As a candidate, Barack Obama asserted his intention to promote renewable energy, boost energy efficiency, combat climate change, reduce our dependence on foreign oil and create green jobs. Unfortunately, a doubled national debt was the last and most urgent of many disastrous Bush legacies with which the new president must cope. The more than $10 trillion we now owe our children and other nations has too many digits to fit on the “debt clock” in Times Square, and the melt-down of the financial sector threatens a global depression.
Those of us who, for the last 30 years, have urged sweeping changes in the nation’s energy posture have always understood the power of the interests aligned against change. We were challenging the oil, coal, electric utility and automobile industries, all of which were profiting handsomely from the status quo. We thought we needed crisis – an energy “Pearl Harbor” or energy “Sputnik” – to mobilize the public behind such a far-reaching change. It might take the form of a war in the Middle East, a Chernobyl meltdown, an Exxon Valdez. But these crises came and went without producing a discernible improvement in national energy policy.
Instead, the opportunity now has come in an unexpected form: a financial system that requires trillions of dollars of investment in order to avoid collapse, coupled with the election of a new president with unusual intelligence, a willingness to take a fresh look at everything, a House and Senate dominated by his political party, and a robust mandate for change.
The most effective way to avoid a long, deep, worldwide recession is huge expenditures on green investments, putting millions of unemployed people back to work. For example, President-elect Obama could sensibly spend $6,000 per house increasing the energy efficiency of 50 million homes. He has already expressed interest in constructing a smart grid – training hundreds of thousands to replace the wave of retiring baby boomer linemen whose departures so worry the utility industry. If the federal government agrees to invest $50 billion to bail out Detroit, it should demand that the ailing industry retool for dramatic increases in fuel efficiency and retraining of autoworkers and mechanics to understand the new technologies.
Most important, we need a national commitment to solar and renewable energy comparable to our mobilization for World War II, when the United States unleashed its scientific creativity and its industrial power to support the war effort. We need Jimmy Carter’s “moral equivalent of war.”
Launch a Solar Revolution
On July 17, Al Gore delivered the coda to An Inconvenient Truth. By far the boldest proposal in his speech was this: “I challenge our nation to commit to producing 100 percent of our electricity from renewable energy and truly clean carbon sources within 10 years.”
To no one’s surprise, Joe Lucas, spokesman for an association of coal-burning utilities, harrumphed that Gore is “not in the mainstream.” Lucas is right. Mainstream thinking is precisely what got us into this mess. Gore is operating in the gutsier tradition of Jimmy Carter’s “moral equivalent of war.”
What does “the moral equivalent of war” actually mean? Let’s consider World War II.
In the four years after Pearl Harbor, America produced 324,750 military aircraft, compared to just 4,000 the previous year. America produced more bombers than did all other nations on both sides of the war combined. We also quickly produced 22 aircraft carriers, 349 destroyers, 422 submarines and 88,410 tanks and self-propelled guns. By the end of 1945, the war was over.
Today, more clearly than even in 1941, a fully engaged United States is essential to a global success in the effort to avoid irreparably damaging the world’s climate. Without American engagement, climate catastrophe is inevitable. With America mobilized, nothing is impossible.
Moreover, just as WWII catapulted America out of the Depression, this moral equivalent of war would offer a wonderful tonic for an economy plagued by recession, inflation, skyrocketing debt and a growing negative balance of trade.
Navigant Consulting calculates that the recent eight-year extension of the federal solar tax credit will, by itself, create 440,000 permanent jobs. In an economy in which the federal government has given gigantic tax breaks to conventional fuels for the past century, that solar tax break is a sound conservative policy – but it falls far short of a policy targeting 100 percent carbon-free electricity by 2020. The latter would employ countless millions.
The private sector is starting to gear up. Former oil tycoon T. Boone Pickens is building the world’s largest wind farm. General Electric, having built one of the world’s largest wind turbine businesses, is jumping into solar energy. Applied Materials is taking orders for gigawatt-scale photovoltaic fabs. The Solar Power International conference in October had 500 industrial exhibitors.
Thousands of startups aim to become the Google of renewable energy. So does Google itself!
In fact, one of the most hopeful portents is that the entrepreneurs and venture funds that defeated the monopolies at Ma Bell and IBM are turning their sights on Exxon and Peabody. We’ve come a long way since 1980, when über-conflicted oil companies dominated big solar and brilliant scientists with limited business skills dominated small solar. This time the solar industry is populated by seasoned entrepreneurs who seek to take over the energy business. With more than 150 solar manufacturing companies around the world – many of them backed by high-tech titans – the oil industry will not be able to buy them all and shut them down as it did in the 1980s.
To read the full version of this article, which appears in the the January/February 2009 issue of SOLAR TODAY and can be accessed on the American Solar Energy Society (ASES) website, click here.
Denis Hayes is a recipient of the Charles Greeley Abbot Award, is a Fellow of the American Solar Energy Society and chairs the ASES Board of Trustees. He is president of the Bullitt Foundation and honorary chair of the International Earth Day Network. During the Carter administration, Hayes was director of the federal Solar Energy Research Institute (now the National Renewable Energy Laboratory).