Four years ago I picked up a good news/bad news local paper in Duluth.
Good was the major revenue growth for the Port of Duluth -- importing wind turbines, in addition exporting taconite iron ore (to places where those wind-turbines are made.) Bad was that instead of the taconite being made into steel for turbines in the U.S. ports the ore freighters pass -- Chicago, Gary, Detroit, Cleveland, Erie, Buffalo -- it went to China, and the turbines themselves were imported from Europe.
But while I was in Brazil last week some much better news appeared -- Brazil this year is importing hundreds of wind turbine blades on freighters from Duluth. Great Plains demand for wind power had grown so much that LM Wind Power had built a turbine blade factory in Grand Forks, N.D., and Duluth was exporting not only taconite, but turbine blades. Now the Grand Forks blades have found an export market -- yet another proof that manufacturing follows markets, and that if the U.S. keeps building demand for energy innovation products, we can built a mighty manufacturing economy behind those markets.
That theme brings me to Cleveland this week, for a two day "Making it Here" conference cosponsored by the Blue-Green Alliance and the Great Lakes Wind Network. The topic -- reviving American energy manufacturing. The keynote speaker, Lou Schorsch, the CEO of ArcelorMittal Steel's U.S. operations, reminds the audience of why manufacturing is so important -- its jobs pay better, it generates far more innovation than other sectors, it provides a middle class pathway for workers without college degrees, and manufacturing innovation is the key to cutting our energy and material waste and consumption.
And it's not wages that hold us back: Germany, a high wage country with strong environmental standards, has the largest percentage of its GDP from manufacturing of any major country -- 20 percent.
Schorsch has five recommendations for a manufacturing revival in the energy sector:
Former Colorado Governor Bill Ritter emphasizes the need for government leadership if the factories are going to keep coming back. And former American Council on Renewable Energy President Michael Eckhardt tells the story of how unintended but badly designed policy initiatives created the perfect storm that led to Chinese domination of solar and wind -- beginning with a U.S. Defense Department Decision in 1987 that renewable energy technologies were not important for national security.
Overall, the mood at the conference is optimistic -- the business and civil leaders there believe that the U.S. has the technological innovation, work force, and resources (including cheap natural gas) to regain our leadership -- if we can get policy right.
But that's a big IF. We're meeting in Cleveland -- and hundreds of miles to the East, outside the manufacturing orbit that surrounds this "North Coast" City, politics is getting ready to reverse the Duluth success story.
Wind energy has been one of the fastest growing sectors of the American economy, even during the Recession. One of the key financing tools for wind developers, the Production Tax Credit, expires at the end of the 2012. (Equivalent financial mechanisms for coal, oil and gas, of course, do not expire -- they got theirs first.) And in spite of bi-partisan support from members of Congress from wind leadership states like Colorado, the Tea Party Republican Leadership seems determined to let the PTC expire to hurt Obama's re-election chances.
As a result factories are shutting down, thousands of workers are being laid off, and the market dynamic that brought wind manufacturing to Grand Forks is unraveling. Thoughtful representatives and senators have tried everything -- the bills they propose are supported by members from both parties, pay for themselves, and do nothing more than continue a great American success story. Colorado Senator Mark Udall has spoken to the Senate every day since May. "It is one thing for Congress to take the time to consider a new proposal and have an open, honest debate, but the Production Tax Credit is widely supported, will create jobs and has already helped our economy grow," Udall said in his first speech.
The extension has the support of Texas business leaders an oil company (BP), and governors all over the country -- but nothing has swayed the determination of the Tea Party to block anything that might help the nation's economy on Barack Obama's watch.
This week, environmental organizations including the Sierra Club, American Wind Energy Association and The Pew Charitable Trusts are asking Americans to contact their elected officials and encourage them to renew the wind energy PTC and protect tens of thousands of green jobs. Yesterday, the Sierra Club launched a new series of high saturation television, radio and online ads, highlighting those Republicans who have failed to act to renew the PTC for wind energy. The cable television and radio ads will run in eastern New Hampshire, Scranton, Pa., and Las Vegas media markets throughout the next three weeks.
Yet in spite of this ground swell, another version of a PTC extender failed to get to the Senate floor this week -- and economists warn that extending the credit after the election, which seems to be the plan of many Republican leaders, will be too late for the factories and jobs.
This behavior is unprecedented -- and unpatriotic. Business, workers and communities -- and our environment -- are being needlessly and severely harmed, simply to make a political point. No Congress in my lifetime has acted this way, however badly a president's opponents loathed him. Voters should not forgive members of Congress who hurt the country to help their electoral chances -- and do so intentionally. But voter accountability for politicians won't save the jobs and livelihoods that are going down all over America this summer in the wind supply chain.
A veteran leader in the environmental movement, Carl Pope is the former executive director and chairman of the Sierra Club. Mr. Pope is co-author -- along with Paul Rauber -- of Strategic Ignorance: Why the Bush Administration Is Recklessly Destroying a Century of Environmental Progress, which the New York Review of Books called "a splendidly fierce book."
Follow Carl Pope on Twitter: www.twitter.com/CarlPope