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

For Clean Tech, One Big Election Win and an Uncertain National Landscape

In the span of just over 24 hours, California won two big victories this week. On Monday Nov. 1, the San Francisco Giants defeated the Texas Rangers to win the World Series by a convincing four games to one. And on Tuesday Nov. 2, California voters delivered a similarly resounding victory to the state’s clean-energy economy in the nation’s most important vote for clean tech, defeating Proposition 23 by an overwhelming 61-39 percent margin.

As most know, Prop. 23 would have suspended California’s pioneering greenhouse gas reduction laws (AB 32), likely for a very long time, jeopardizing clean-tech investment, deployment, and job growth. That prospect galvanized the clean-tech business community in California and across the nation, which mobilized to raise considerably more money than its well-funded opposition mainly from the oil industry. Californians also elected stalwart clean-tech supporter Jerry Brown as their next governor by a 13-point margin over challenger Meg Whitman, who opposed Prop. 23 but said she’d like to suspend AB 32 for one year to study its economic impact. And Golden State voters also re-elected another great clean-tech ally, Sen. Barbara Boxer, to her fourth term. 

On the surface, the defeat of Prop. 23 may seem like a stressful and expensive (though successful) effort to simply preserve the status quo. But I think it’s much more than that. This result, especially with its overwhelming numbers, sends a strong message to future potential efforts to roll back progressive, clean tech-promoting initiatives around the country. The specter of Prop. 23 was the clean-tech community’s first big, direct political challenge since the election of President Obama, and it passed with flying colors. “Clean economy businesses took a big step forward as a community by coalescing across technologies to stop a proposition that threatened real jobs and economic growth,” said Jeff Anderson, executive director of the Clean Economy Network business coalition. If I were a fossil-fuel company or industry seeking to turn back action on carbon emissions, I wouldn’t spend the money to do it this way again. I’d go back to the old-fashioned method: lobbying elected officials. 

And on that score — elected officials across the U.S. — Election Day 2010 didn’t turn out so well for the clean-tech industry. The ascension of dozens of House and Senate candidates not at all committed to a clean-energy economy — including outright climate-change deniers like Wisconsin Senator-elect Ron Johnson — severely diminishes hope of any significant action at the Congressional level for the next two years. 

But the state level is really where the action is for creating economic incentives to start, relocate, or expand clean-tech businesses, and here is where this year’s results create a big air of uncertainty. In governors’ races, clean tech, particularly the wind power industry, lost two of its best political champions in Iowa’s Chet Culver and Ohio’s Ted Strickland. Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn held on in a squeaker, although a recount is possible. Colorado fared much better, with former Denver mayor and clean-energy advocate John Hickenlooper’s convincing gubernatorial win boding well for continuation of the state’s progressive policies under retiring Gov. Bill Ritter. 

Four other significant clean tech-supporting governors — Michigan’s Jennifer Granholm, Wisconsin’s Jim Doyle, Kansas’ Mark Parkinson, and Pennsylvania’s Ed Rendell — were either term-limited or chose not to run, and in all four races the statehouse changed from Democratic to Republican hands. That doesn’t necessarily mean disaster, as outgoing Republican governors and clean-tech champions Arnold Schwarzenegger (California) and Charlie Crist (Florida) have shown during their tenures — but the outlook is uncertain. Clean-tech players in Michigan, for example, are hopeful that GOP governor-elect Rick Snyder, co-founder of nanotechnology-investing venture firm Ardesta and a board member of The Nature Conservancy in Michigan, will continue Granholm’s aggressive push for clean-tech jobs. 

In the Northeast there was better news, as Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick, a staunch clean-tech supporter, survived a tough challenge to win re-election by a solid seven-point margin. That’s a nice geographic bookend to the positive news in California. But the U.S. can’t compete for 21st century jobs and economic leadership on a global scale if clean tech is identified strictly as a blue coastal state, Democratic-liberal phenomenon. After this mixed-bag election for the clean-tech industry, I hope that politicians of all affiliations will understand 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 [email protected] and follow him on Twitter at Clint_Wilder.