Bioenergy, Energy Efficiency, Geothermal, Hydropower, Solar, Wind Power

State of the Clean-Tech Union: Troubled Waters Ahead?

“The nation that leads the clean energy economy will be the nation that leads the global economy.” — President Barack Obama, State of the Union address, Jan. 27, 2010.

The Clean-Tech Investor Summit conference in Palm Springs, produced by Clean Edge and IBF in mid-January for the past six years, has almost always coincided with some momentous U.S. political event. Last year, the summit began one day after Barack Obama’s historic inauguration. In 2008, it was the Super Tuesday primary battle between Obama and Hillary Clinton. In the years before that, President George W. Bush’s State of the Union speech. And this year, our conference opened as the polls closed in Massachusetts with Republican Scott Brown’s unexpected election to the U.S. Senate.

The next morning, Summit keynote speaker Reed Hundt, former FCC chairman and current co-chair of Coalition for the Green Bank, wasted no time assessing the U.S. political landscape in regard to clean energy. “We’re worse off than we were a year ago,” he said. “The message of Massachusetts is a wake-up call…which may or may not be heard.”

Brown’s victory, in and of itself, is not the cataclysmic event described in much of the media, but symbolic of a broader trend. The Democrats’ 60-vote ‘super-majority’ in the Senate, was always illusory, as Hundt pointed out, particularly with regard to health insurance reform. But the larger context is that the Democrats have been ineffective in controlling the political message in Obama’s first year in office — and that has potentially gloomy consequences for clean-energy policy.

Much as Obama has failed to overcome Republican intransigence and create a ‘post-partisan’ atmosphere, so too have clean-tech advocates (including myself) failed to transform the political debate about clean energy. Instead, with few exceptions, our politicians remain stuck in the same old camps. Liberals favor clean energy, energy efficiency, carbon limits, and well-targeted government incentives to advance all of the above. Conservatives like coal, oil and gas, and generally preserving the energy status quo — and aren’t so sure this global-warming stuff is actually real. Moderates know the climate is changing and are cool with wind and solar, as long as we also make sure to support clean coal, nuclear power, and offshore drilling (though perhaps not right off their shores).

The goal that we’ve failed to reach is recasting this polarized, clean vs. fossil debate, as it exists in the maelstrom of mainstream media and politics, into something else: discussing the heart of the nation’s economic future.

When colleague Ron Pernick and I traveled to China nearly four years ago doing research for our book The Clean Tech Revolution, I was struck by the nation’s lack of animosity, if you will, among energy sources. Coal or gas advocates there didn’t pooh-pooh wind and solar as intermittent, not scalable, or not ready for prime time. The Chinese mantra was (and is): it’s all energy, and we need lots more of it — bring it on. As a result, China will soon be home to some of the largest solar and wind installations in the world — some of them owned by American companies — and is building out domestic industries in dozens of clean-tech sectors at a dizzying pace.

Certainly, there’s no question that keeping everyone on the same energy page is a lot easier with a powerful, centrally-directed, government-funded system that also happens to stifle political dissent. But there’s also no disputing the message: a country’s massive development and deployment of clean energy — and training and employing its 21st century workforce — is crucial for the future of competitiveness in the global economy.

I believe that President Obama understands this, and many of his State of the Union words, especially the quote at the top of this column, reflect that. He specifically cited the clean-energy efforts of China, India, and Germany, asserting, “They’re not standing still. These nations aren’t playing for second place. They’re putting more emphasis on math and science. They’re rebuilding their infrastructure. They’re making serious investments in clean energy because they want those jobs.” But Obama did muddy the message a bit by citing clean coal and nuclear (which have their place, but don’t fall under the Clean Edge definition of clean tech), and even more problematically, “opening new offshore areas for oil and gas development.” In what way would that help create new clean-energy jobs?

The Obama team does get good grades for serious investments in clean energy through stimulus spending — advanced batteries, solar, and high-speed rail among others — some $24 billion well-detailed by DOE senior advisor Matt Rogers at our Summit. But that spigot is rapidly running dry, and private-sector purse strings, though starting to loosen, will not be enough to pick up the slack.

Meanwhile, clean-energy policy minefields abound at every level. To his credit, Obama re-endorsed the Senate climate and energy bill in the State of the Union, but its fate remains dubious in the political reality cited above. Clean-energy opponents seem to be pushing back against every major policy advance. This week, two House members, one from each party, followed Sen. Lisa Murkowski’s (R-Alaska) lead in introducing measures to block the EPA’s regulation of carbon emissions regulation. In California, a business lobby is seeking to delay implementation of the state’s landmark AB 32 emissions reduction bill. All these efforts are cast in the same old light: The economy is fragile, we can’t afford it right now, and it will cost jobs.

Clean-energy technology is not a threat to our economic future; it is our economic future. Some previous skeptics understand this, like former auto glass workers now building solar panels in Toledo, Ohio, or farmers in Iowa and west Texas who lease their land for wind turbines. But that message has not become mainstream, and it certainly hasn’t penetrated the halls of Congress. If U.S. clean-tech growth is going to navigate the troubled waters ahead — and if we, like our President, are not going to accept second place for the United States — that absolutely has to happen.

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 [email protected]