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Utility Executives: Unlikely Allies in Climate Fight

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President Barack Obama announced last month that clean energy specialist John Bryson will head the Commerce Department, further expunging the ill affection toward "bad guy" utility companies and suggesting that we have entered a new phase of climate consciousness.

Bryson will bring both private sector and environmental expertise to the administration as former chairman and chief executive officer of Edison International, a California-based energy company that prides itself on clean technologies, and co-founder of the National Resources Defense Council.

As CEO of Edison, Bryson became a leader in solar and wind power, launching a plan to turn 65 million square feet of vacant commercial roof space into solar power stations. One of Obama's missions for Bryson is to likewise expand U.S. exports and make the U.S. more competitive in the international marketplace -- the site of rapidly expanding Asian clean energy markets.

The president is confident that Bryson is fit for the challenge.

"In the years ahead, a key to achieving our export goal will be promoting clean energy in America. It's how we'll reduce our dependence on foreign oil," Obama said. "John understands this better than virtually anybody. Throughout a distinguished career in which he's led non-profits, government agencies and large companies, he's been a fierce proponent of alternative energy."

Obama's nomination of Bryson reveals a new approach to coping with climate change -- one that's also a way of coping with the recession. Placing a utility exec as head in the top U.S. trade chair signals that utility companies and clean energy programs are obvious partners in the fight to create jobs and increase global competitiveness (both of which are posed as key recession-busters in a recent Steven Pearlstein column). It doesn't hurt that these economy boosters are also crucial for combatting global warming and ensuring future generations have the tools to continue doing so.

As I've written about before, utilities are important - and, admittedly, unlikely - allies as we work to expand the clean energy marketplace. But this new generation of utility executives understands that America's energy demand is higher now than ever before. They need to increase supply - and, increasingly, clean energy is becoming a cost-effective way to do just that. Hopefully Bryson will be confirmed quickly and can begin applying his expertise and passion right away.

Brian Keane is the President of SmartPower, a non-profit marketing organization funded by private foundations to help build the clean energy marketplace by helping the American public become smarter about their energy use.

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