Obama-Era Carbon Policy Must Transform Old Divisions

During his historic campaign, one of President Barack Obama’s signature lines was “We are not just blue states and red states, we are the United States of America.”

But can we truly be united on our energy future? Even among the blue states, whose ranks just swelled significantly on November 4, can the same spirit of unity and change that propelled Obama into the White House also apply to the brown and green states of America?

Green states are those, primarily hugging the Northeast and West coasts, that have generally led the clean tech revolution in the U.S. in policy, technology, business, and public and private financial investment. They virtually all have “blue” voting track records in recent elections, have statewide renewable portfolio mandates in place, and — not at all coincidentally — don’t depend on coal for a large percentage of their electricity. They’re the usual clean-tech suspects, if you will — California, Oregon, New York, Massachusetts, Washington, Connecticut, etc.

Brown states are harder to peg. Think Ohio, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Indiana and most of the Upper Midwest. States that were arguably the heart of Obama’s electoral landslide victory and, as places hardest-hit by the economic meltdown, clearly ready for change. But their economies often depend on heavy manufacturing, and they derive very large percentages of their power from coal — roughly 80 percent in Ohio, for example. In other words, they’re very carbon-intensive — therefore places likely to face the most severe financial hit from a carbon tax or cap-and-trade system.

These states’ federal legislators, as noted in a Jan. 27 front-page New York Times article, “Geography is Dividing Democrats over Energy,” are well aware of this. Brown-state Senators and House members, though they may agree with Obama on most other issues, are likely to oppose much-needed carbon legislation if they perceive it to be unfair to their home region. And they’ll have plenty of allies among Republicans from solid-red southern and mountain states, where coal also happens to rule the power-generating landscape. In theory, a carbon cap-and-trade system will create the financial levers these states need to make the transition to a clean energy economy. But how will we ever muster the political support for a cap-and-trade bill with enough teeth to make that happen?

The answer, I think, will lie in transforming the terms of the debate. Obama was elected by preaching not just hope and unity, but by asking us to move beyond traditional definitions and divisions. That approach must apply to energy as well as politics. Support for carbon legislation, and other key policy levers of the clean energy economy, can’t just come from Silicon Valley entrepreneurs or New England policymakers. It must also come from midwestern steel manufacturers, and southern utilities investing in serious, good-faith carbon capture and sequestration initiatives, and construction materials companies replacing carbon-intensive cement with fly ash.

On this score, I was heartened by the recent news from the American Wind Energy Association that California has ceded its No. 2 (behind Texas) spot among the leading wind-generating states to…wait for it…Iowa. That’s right, the Hawkeyes of the nation’s 26th largest state now have nearly 2.8 gigawatts (GW) of wind capacity, compared to 2.5 GW in industry pioneer California. If Ray Kinsella/Kevin Costner were building his mythical Field of Dreams baseball diamond in an Iowa cornfield today, he’d likely have wind turbines serving as foul poles. And Iowa is manufacturing as well as deploying wind, with six turbine makers now located in the state.

The lesson is that the clean tech revolution is flourishing, and creating badly-needed jobs, in what some would consider unlikely places. (For another great example in an urban setting, check out RenewableEnergyWorld.com’s recent story on the conversion of some of Toledo, Ohio’s auto-glass factories to solar cell fabrication). These types of efforts need to expand dramatically, and should be a major target of federal policy under Obama. That will not only serve those local economies well, it will also help redraw the political support map for major national initiatives like carbon cap-and-trade policy. Even with a supportive president and a Congress positively predisposed toward clean energy, cap-and-trade is among the most complicated and controversial regulatory policies there is. It will need all the allies it can get.

Wilder is Clean Edge’s contributing 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 wilder@cleanedge.com.

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