I Told You So: Clean Energy and Economic Growth

04/03/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011
  • Jeff Schweitzer Scientist and former White House Senior Policy Analyst; Ph.D. in neurophysiology

If a blog falls on the internet and nobody reads it, do electrons get wasted?

The time has come to revisit my earlier pleas to promote clean energy as an engine of sustainable growth. After sounding the alarm for 20 years on largely deaf ears in the wilderness of a treeless forest, I was overjoyed to hear President Obama boldly give clean energy the status of a national priority in his first State of the Union address. Obama did so in several passages not as a throwaway to appease some narrow constituency but as an integral and essential part of his overall message of building a strong economy of the future:

  • "There's no reason Europe or China should have the fastest trains, or the new factories that manufacture clean energy products."
  • "We should put more Americans to work building clean energy facilities -- and give rebates to Americans who make their homes more energy-efficient, which supports clean energy jobs."
  • "And no area is more ripe for such innovation than energy. You can see the results of last year's investments in clean energy..."
  • "But to create more of these clean energy jobs, we need more production, more efficiency, more incentives..."
  • "Yes, it means passing a comprehensive energy and climate bill with incentives that will finally make clean energy the profitable kind of energy in America."

He followed those words with a proposed budget, in his first submitted to Congress, that includes $15 billion a year for renewable energy programs and a plan to raise $656 billion from a carbon reduction proposal. He explained this investment as follows: "Because our future depends on our ability to break free from oil that's controlled by foreign dictators, we need to make clean, renewable energy the profitable kind of energy."

Compare these goals to the words written earlier in a Huffington Post blog by someone that many consider to be the smartest man in the world. Well, OK, nobody actually thinks that. Nevertheless...

"Environmentalism is not the ideology of left wing socialists, but instead the true engine of all future economic growth. Just as the United States rose to greatness on the engine of industrialization, the world's next great superpower will come to dominate by advancing green technologies."

"The false choice offered by the right is dangerous not only to the environment but to our national security. The next superpower will be the country that moves quickly to solar, wind and (sane) biofuel power..."

Yes, those are the brilliant thoughts of yours truly. But while Obama's focus on clean energy is excellent news for those of us who have long recognized the important role of clean energy in creating a prosperous future, we also have bad news. China is for the first time the world leader in promoting clean energy. China's investment is in fact wonderful news for the world, and we should encourage all efforts to promote clean energy in all countries. But while doing so we should maintain our global leadership position.

The United States should be the country selling to others the equipment they need to meet clean energy goals. Congress must enact legislation to promote the agenda outlined in Obama's speech. We have run out of time for debate, and need to act quickly now. Specifically that means spending gobs of money on research, implementation and infrastructure development: research to discover new technologies; implementation to ensure wide adoption of the technologies in play now; and a restructuring of tax incentives to promote clean growth, discourage waste and accelerate the development of the extensive infrastructure changes necessary to widely adopt clean energy technologies. While the predominant emphasis must be on the private sector, we will also need direct government investment in certain areas beyond research, such as modernizing the grid.

China is not waiting for us to get our national act together, with a commitment to invest $217 billion on green technology over the next five years. With China breathing down our neck, we cannot afford a debacle like we've seen with health care. The $80 billion in the Obama stimulus package dedicated to green technology is nothing but a small down payment, a great start but nowhere near sufficient. The proposed $15 billion annual expenditure is not enough as a sustained commitment. The $600-plus billion from carbon reduction is more in line with the magnitude necessary to make a difference but that amount depends, at least for now, on too many uncertain legislative steps to be counted seriously at the moment. We play around while the competition kills us.

China's new dominance in renewable energy is a terrible indictment of U.S. energy policy because by every right the United States should be leading the charge. The lead was ours to lose. We have allowed our fascination with unfettered free markets to dominate our energy policy, and as a result we are now second rate. We have stymied research, provided perverse incentives to the oil industry, and subsidized inefficiency. And while we do all that our friends to the East have become the world's largest manufacturer of solar panels, overtaking the United States as a world leader in this field. China is investing heavily in clean coal technologies. China is also now number one in the world in the use of off-grid wind turbines and they are poised to take the front slot for energy produced by wind turbines connected to the grid, moving quickly from fourth place as recently as 2008. And while we lose ground to China, we do so too with other countries. Germany now invests more than the United States in renewable energy. To put that in perspective Germany has a GDP of $3.65 trillion, compared to $14.5 trillion in the United States. So while our economy is almost four times the size of Germany we invest less money in our future, not on a percentage basis but in actual dollars.

I will end with the words from another blog of mine to double down on the told you so as China cleans our clock: The future belongs to those seeking to integrate green and growth. This is how our national interests will be secured. This is where jobs will be created. Several studies conclude that just doubling current wind energy capacity in the United States could create 150,000 new manufacturing jobs in 20 states. The United States should rightfully lead this charge, but only will if the faithful right wing skeptics adopt a more enlightened attitude appropriate to the 21st century and move away from the odd idea that any effort to discuss green growth is a left wing conspiracy.

Let's get behind Obama on this one.