A Clean Economy Promises Windfalls for the Public and Industry

Posted November 18, 2008 at 4:10pm

As President-elect Barack Obama and a reshaped Congress transition from campaigning to governing, they confront significant challenges — broken financial markets, a struggling economy and the growing danger of global climate change. The equally significant opportunity, clearly embraced by Obama during his campaign, is the promise of the clean energy economy.

[IMGCAP(1)]A new president can, and should, have a roster of goals and campaign pledges to pursue, but there can only be a handful of issues that receive top priority. Moving to a green-energy economy will save consumers money, return profits to investors and manufacturers, produce jobs and reduce both global warming pollution and our dependency on oil. It is quite simply the most significant business opportunity of the 21st century and deserves early action by the new administration and Congress.

The technologies we need to begin this economic transformation largely exist today, and the capital needed to bring them to market scale will follow if we just change the rules of the energy game. For too long, these rules have perpetuated the old ways of doing business: favoring incumbent industries with tax breaks and regulatory incentives, paying lip service to alternatives and allowing the atmosphere to be used as a garbage dump for our emissions. New laws governing energy production must put a price on carbon and reward utilities for providing efficiency, and not just energy production.

The task of rebuilding our energy infrastructure is reminiscent of other great economic transformations in America’s history, like building the railroads and the interstate highway system. President-elect Obama appears ready to seize this opportunity by putting energy at the heart of his economic strategy. He should assemble all the key agencies of government — economic, national security and environmental — to work in tandem under White House leadership with a single-minded mission of enabling the U.S. energy economy to meet the needs of the 21st century.

Several steps are needed to advance the clean energy economy blueprint, and they deserve broad bipartisan support, including:

• Investing in renewable energy and building the transmission lines and storage technologies to bring it to market. This includes wind from the Great Plains and solar energy from the desert Southwest.

• Launching a national training and development program for the new green work force — jobs that can’t be shipped overseas.

• Modernizing the electricity grid to make it more reliable and resilient. Right now, power outages cost the economy more than $100 billion a year, and the risk of disruption from an act of sabotage remains a real threat.

• Preparing the grid for plug-in electric hybrid vehicles that, in combination with second-generation biofuels, could take oil completely out of light-duty transportation.

• Putting a price on carbon to help drive innovation.

• Demonstrating multiple pathways for power plants to capture their carbon emissions and allow the continued use of coal in a carbon-constrained world.

• Giving utilities financial incentives to eliminate energy waste and make our homes and businesses as efficient as those in Europe and Japan.

Setting a new course for U.S. energy strategy will drive substantial flows of private investment and spark business development, innovation and new solutions. This will also enable the United States to regain a position of international leadership through stewardship of a green economic expansion, which will stimulate growth in developed and developing countries alike. Such growth, powered by clean energy, is essential in order to realize the goals of the United Nations-led climate negotiations, now entering their critical final phase, and to make progress toward the Millennium Development Goals.

A major new investment in research, development and deployment will bring forth the technologies we need to deliver energy that is cleaner, cheaper and more abundant than the fuels we use today. The result will be an echo of the Internet and mobile phone booms, creating new businesses and jobs and stimulating growth across the economic spectrum.

Those “green” jobs will be in the manufacturing sector, producing wind turbines, solar thermal power plants, biofuels refineries and plug-in electric hybrid vehicles. They will be in the building sector, working in partnership with utilities to reduce the energy waste in every home, business, school and hospital in America. They will be modernizing the electric power grid to make it more reliable and resilient, capturing emissions from our power plants to enable the clean use of fossil fuels, upgrading urban transit and building high-speed rail to provide alternatives to our roads.

Americans are feeling personal pain and rising anxiety about where the economy is headed. They want a new vision for the revitalization of the nation and American leadership in the world. The next president will have a precious moment to point the way and mobilize the country and the international community toward a brighter future.

The meltdown in the financial markets has temporarily brought the price of oil and commodities down to earth, but upward pressure will resume soon enough. No matter how dire our current financial conditions, confronting our energy and climate challenges will only get more expensive the longer we delay. This remains the challenge. It can be met with leadership.

Timothy Wirth, a former Democratic Senator from Colorado, is president of the United Nations Foundation.