THE BLOG

National Clean Energy Summit With Reid and Schwarzenegger

08/14/2013 07:32 pm ET | Updated Oct 14, 2013

The annual National Clean Energy Summit on Tuesday in Las Vegas, Nevada, pointed up the promise and pitfalls of such events.

On the one hand, it drew a glittering array of speakers to the cause of promoting renewable energy and energy efficiency, as well as an impressive crowd of energy participants and policy supporters. On the other hand, it didn't present much in the way of news, suggesting it may be wise to re-think how such events are conceived. There certainly wasn't a hint of conflict.

The scientific debate over the cause of climate change is over, new U.S. Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz said, though it rages on in Congress. "In the scientific community, there is near consensus on drivers of climate change," said Moniz.

For her part, new U.S. Interior Secretary Sally Jewell said she hoped there weren't any climate deniers in the house. If there were, they were adopting a low profile for the occasion.

Actually, this may be the wrong approach. Because it's conflict that creates drama and news. An endless procession of the like-minded can result in a pro forma response.

While the summit came off very well, if it's to go to another level of engagement and impact, perhaps it's time for the founder of this feast, U.S. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, and his colleagues to mix things up a bit to create more news.

This was the sixth time Reid has brought this event to the legendary oasis in the Nevada desert. This time around his partners in the summit at Mandalay Bay on the Las Vegas Strip were the Center for American Progress, Clean Energy Project, MGM Resorts International, and the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.

In his opening remarks, Reid talked up the many elements of the conference but, with many of President Barack Obama's programs stymied, zeroed in on action at the state level as providing the real leading edge today in America.

Former Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, who enacted California's landmark climate change program and greatly expanded its leadership on renewable energy, joined Maryland Governor Martin O'Malley and former Michigan Governor Jennifer Granholm, for the Clean Energy Solutions in States portion of the program.

Both Granholm, now a lecturer at the University of California at Berkeley, and O'Malley, who got his start in politics as an advance man in the Gary Hart for President campaign and is contemplating a future presidential run of his own, acknowledged that their states have enacted standards requiring that a certain portion of electric power come from renewable sources but that California's "renewable portfolio standard," greatly expanded by Schwarzenegger after its enactment by Governor Gray Davis and continued when Schwarzenegger finished his second term by Governor Jerry Brown, is much bigger.

Schwarzenegger got off some good gibes to win the crowd over.

Speaking of greenhouse gas deniers: "Strap some conservative-thinking people to a tailpipe for an hour and then they will agree it's a pollutant!"

And naturally, there was this quip: "Use your Hummer, but have an electric engine."

But Schwarzenegger mostly played it pretty straight, discussing what has been done in California and his pride in being part of a tradition of such action in California. With the gridlock at the federal level, states are essential. He then went on to note that his international travels for the R20 organization he heads of sub-national governments from around the world makes it all too clear that America is unfortunately not the only national government to be doing much less than it can.

But not only is America losing its leadership position, it can fall further behind if things don't change.

Schwarzenegger suggested that we focus at least as much if not more on the upside of clean energy, looking beyond the endless warnings about climate change itself to additional benefits that may be more appealing to the uninitiated.

That means the impact of creating new industry and jobs around clean energy, not to mention the national security implications of minimizing our reliance on oil from unfriendly or unstable places on the planet. Tellingly, the armed forces, notably the U.S. Navy, developing fuel from algae, and other armed services looking to minimize vulnerable supply lines, are taking a leading role on renewables and efficiency.

Recalling the 2010 initiative attempt to take down California's landmark climate change program, which Schwarzenegger and an array of allies -- including ex-hedge fund billionaire Tom Steyer, who followed Schwarzenegger on the program -- trounced at the polls, Schwarzenegger played to an increasingly engaged crowd. "Oil and coal companies," he declared in his trademark manner, "can not push us around. You will be terminated."

But he also pointed out that we need oil, as we live in a civilization long organized around oil and are very far away from being able to do without it. "We need oil companies to be part of the solution," he argued, which includes environmentally appropriate development of domestic oil resources while we accelerate the transition to new energy sources.

When Granholm said it was Schwarzenegger's party who left him on green issues, Schwarzenegger continued on the theme that either/or thinking can be too simplistic. He fired back, citing Democratic politicians in coal-producing states.

It's not that there's nothing to what Granholm said about a great many Republicans deriding alternative approaches on energy and transportation, it's that it's just too simplistic to boil this issue down to partisanship. Democrats who back coal and block climate change action do so not because of any partisan ID but because they cater to dominant local interests.

And Schwarzenegger did not mention it, but it was Democrats who for a time blocked one of his biggest solar energy programs as governor. Because it did not carve out special privileges for unions within the legislation, a short-sighted special interest view which set Jerry Brown off on something of a tirade at the time during an environmental event in his honor.

When it comes to clean energy, there's plenty of bright-line principle and uplift about the future. But there is plenty of complexity and conflict as well. Who knows? There might even be more stories there.

You can check things during the day on my site, New West Notes ... www.newwestnotes.com.