Why Capitol Hill Is Keeping U.S. From Creating Clean Energy Jobs

Posted on October 10th, 2011 by

Nathanael Greene,  Director of Renewable Energy Policy in New York City for the National Resource Defense Council, discusses our country’s struggle to create clean energy jobs.

Full Transcript:

Ben Lack: Clean energy jobs is at the top of the discussion board for folks working on capital hill right now. Can you give me the argument as to why clean energy jobs should be in the discussion of how the US ultimately should be getting out of recession?
Nathanael Greene: I think the critical context for people to bear in mind around the jobs discussion is that, I would go a little bit broader than clean energy. I would say Cleantech jobs are really a huge bright spot in our economy right now. We’ve got more people in the Cleantech economy than we have in the entire fossil fuel economy. We have a little under 3 million people employed in Cleantech, which is more than all the fossil fuels combined and even though industries like oil have been reaping in huge profits, half a trillion dollars over the last 5 years, they’ve actually been laying people off. Big oils laid-off about 11,000 people in the last 5 years while they made record profit. Whereas, Cleantech generally and especially clean energy part has been growing and growing faster than almost any other part of the economy right now. So, if you believe in American innovation or ability to come up with cool new stuff and great new business models, this is the sector you want to be investing in. It’s a huge piece of our pie already, much bigger than the fossil fuel industry. And, it’s part of the economy that’s actually growing when the rest of it’s stalled.
Ben Lack: As president Obama goes on the road to promote his jobs plan, there is staunch criticism being pointed at what he wants to do from a clean energy perspective. What is that criticism looking like and what’s the rebuttle for those concerns?
Nathanael Greene: I think everyone, both Obama’s critics and the administration and the democrats and congress, everyone is coming at this from numerous angles. How do we get our economy going again? How do we keep people at work? And I think everyone wants clean air for their kids, clean water to drink, so I don’t think there’s a motivation problem here in the broad populous.  I do think there’s a lot of political point scoring going on here which is distracting from an always important conversation of how do we perfect our policies. We don’t have a comprehensive energy policy in this country, nothing even approaching it, so with the piecemeal package that we have we can always do it better. If you look at clean energy policy going back to the last 10-20 years, it’s actually been incredibly bi-partisan to date. Everytime the production tax credit, which is one of the main incentives for wind power has come up, it’s passed bi-partisan was introduced originally by George Bush senior and has been renewed everytime in a bi-partisan way because it’s putting people at work in everyone’s districts. The facts on the ground are that this part of our economy is growing and people want to support that.I think there’s some political point scoring going on that’s distracting from some really important conversations about how do we do things better.I think one thing that’s really lost in the current debate around how we do things better is the distinction between what I would call deployment policies, which are really designed to encourage mature industries and I think the production tax rate is a great example of a deployment policy targeting mature or nearly mature technologies and you can get a lot of bang for the government’s buck. But, that doesn’t drive innovation. It doesn’t help people build the first of a kind facility. It doesn’t help people do research and development. We need both parts of that pie if you’re really going to grow the Cleantech economy.

The loan guarantee program is really an innovation piece of policy, designed when the private bankers look at technologies and say I don’t understand that technology it’s too new, no one else has done it, I don’t know how to figure out what the risks are there. That’s when the government has a role to step in and say, ‘you know we’ve got to take risks in this sector if we’re going to speed up the moving of technologies from the lab to the market place. The loan guarantee is a tool we’ve used in lots of different sectors, heavily used in agriculture, it’s been used for nuclear power. We’ve got to use it smart, we’ve got to do it right, but if we are doing it in a way where there are no failures, if there’s no one out there that we give a loan guarantee that fails, then that shows we are actually targeting a sector that’s not risky enough, we’re not really going in there where the market can.

So, the simple fact of a failure like Solyndra should show us actually that we’re on the edge of really helping innovation. We’ve got to be smart about it, but if we pulled the plug on helping Edison when his first light bulb burned out, where would we be today, what would we have done if we had closed up shop on Ford when his first tire went flat? Failure is a part of learning and innovation, we’ve got to be smart about it but we’ve got to do it.

Ben Lack: Regardless of the broad approach that the loan guarantee program has, which is going to have cases like a Solyndra where these companies all are not going to succeed. What do you think the outcome of Solyndra’s business? How is that really going to impact in the short term any successful jobs planned that include Cleantech jobs or clean energy jobs and the further enhancement of the loan guarantee program?
Nathanael Greene: I think there’s going to be the usual political bickering and partisanship in Washington and I think that always puts progress, unfortunately, at risk. I think the real question is will the people working in the Cleantech economy, the 3 million people that have jobs, 100,000 people that work in the solar industry, if these people start talking to their congress people and saying hey, the idea of government investing in this sector is critical, it’s not just important for my job, although that’s a personnel driver for most people, it’s also critical for economic security, critical to our environmental security, critical to our national security in many ways. So, it’s not okay for politicians to turn this into a political football. By all means people need to figure out how to perfect their policies. Making it a political campaign issue is just not acceptable. It’s going to be tough but it’s just too important to let it happen.
Ben Lack: Are there any states that are going under the radar as far as promoting strong job creation as it relates to Cleantech? Obviously California gets a ton of press because they’re one of the leaders in Cleantech but are there some states that are doing a really good job but might not necessarily hit the headlines?
Nathanael Greene: I think there are a lot of examples at the state level of state doing innovative things. Few have as comprehensive a package as California. But, that doesn’t mean they aren’t doing things that we can really learn from and replicate. Ohio used a chunk of stimulus money and matched it with state money and then set up a really cool program called the Gateway Fundthat used private sector investors to invest in clean energy, Cleantech companies in Ohio. They were able by using smart financing to leverage hundreds of millions of dollars investment into the state with a total of $50 million between the state and the federal government. Really smart policies that other states could definitely replicate and the federal government could learn from.Connecticut also has an energy innovation in finance authority which they have just adopted and started to roll out and that’s going to be really interesting to watch. A lot of the east coast states are trying to figure out how they can move the off-shore wind industry forward. Some of these tools are technology specific, some of them are broad, some of them are targeting finance, some of them are targeting demand creation.New York came really close last year to passing a solar jobs bill that would have set a really aggressive target for solar installations here in New York that would have looked at the whole spectrum, not just roof-top TV but also utility scale and would have brought in all the different players and given them all a critical role in making it happen. I think there are lots of good models out there. While DC is so paralyzed we’ve got to find those models and really learn from them.
Ben Lack: So while the states put together these types of successful and innovative programs and to your point with DC really being at a standstill, what kind of recommendations can you make to our audience who believe in the clean energy job growth? What can you tell them for what they need to do and where to try and make a difference or to get the right policies put in place?
Nathanael Greene: I think the most important thing that can happen right now is for people working in this sector, whether they’re the mechanics, the engineers, the entrepreneurs, the bankers, all the different levels, to call up their congress people and say this is the bright spot in our economy right now and China invests in their economy, Germany invests in their economy and all these other economies are desperately trying to out-compete us in this sector. We got to invest if we’re going to reap the rewards of this whole new sector. We should be exporting this technology to the rest of the world, not coming up with it and then losing the markets to other countries. Congress, Republicans and Democrats alike, need to hear that government has a critical role to play here and it can’t be a partisan issue.
Ben Lack: Why have you chosen to do what you’re doing?
Nathanael Greene: I believe passionately in the importance of our environment to us as human beings, our health, our spiritual health but equally passionately the importance of our environment to our economy and how important our economy is to us as human beings. I think working on clean energy, clean technology, is a commitment to making the world both an economically sustainable and environmentally sustainable place, a way to do well by doing good.

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