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guest commentary

Leading the world's green industrial revolution

Tom Weis
Posted: 05/27/2010

A gaping gulf exists today between America's economic collapse, our melting globe, and the lackluster response of top leaders in the U.S. wind, solar and geothermal industries. You wouldn't know it, but these three industries, along with the energy efficiency sector, hold the key to ushering in a green industrial revolution for America, and the world.

I've just spent the past five years working inside the U.S. wind industry, with access to its top leadership, and have never seen an industry so lacking in ambition. I'll begin with their anemic growth goals.

For years, the American Wind Energy Association (AWEA) advocated providing a paltry 6 percent of America's electricity with wind power. When some of us began pushing them to raise this to 20 percent, they resisted until President Bush opined in 2006 that the U.S. could possibly generate 20 percent of its electricity from wind power.

AWEA then embraced this as a goal, but with a laggardly 2030 timeline. Now, even though the wind industry is well ahead of schedule to meet this conservative benchmark, AWEA remains strangely wedded to it, as if frozen in time. This despite a recent study by the Nebraska Power Association showing that Nebraska and several other states can reliably and affordably obtain 40 percent of their electricity from wind energy.

For the past year, I have pushed for a stepped-up goal of 40 percent U.S. wind power by 2020. Others believe we can do even more. This industry is uniquely poised - by virtue of its cost competitiveness and maturity as a technology - to lead America's economic renaissance, but it won't happen without bold leadership.

Instead, AWEA supports climate legislation (H.R. 2454) that is more likely to perpetuate a fossil fuel future than a green energy future and that even they acknowledge would not accelerate wind energy development. On the federal research and development front, wind timidly settles for crumbs, while coal and nuclear rake in billions. Then instead of doing the job themselves, AWEA waits for another Texas oilman, T. Boone Pickens, to spend $58 million of his own money on television advertising to popularize wind power in America.

Let's look at the solar industry. A recent report by the Solar Energy Industries Association says that solar power technologies could generate 15 percent of America's power in ten years. Enough solar energy falls on the surface of the earth every 40 minutes to meet 100 percent of the world's energy needs for a full year. Granted, the right policies must be put in place to enable its proper deployment, but why only 15 percent for the U.S. by 2020?

The Geothermal Energy Association predicts that in 2010, the U.S. Department of Energy will officially recognize a near-term potential of at least 5 percent of U.S. power needs, with longer-term possibilities of over five times that amount. At least this industry can envision significant future growth, but why are they taking their cue from the federal government, and why only 5 percent in the near term?

It's gut check time. The national renewable energy trade associations are promoting incrementalism when the times demand revolutionary change. Championing a weak U.S. renewable electricity standard of 20 percent by 2020 is not leadership. Leadership is rallying the nation around an Apollo-like goal of putting America back to work creating a 100 percent renewable electricity grid by 2020.

Whether you are motivated by millions of new jobs; energy independence; better health; accountability for polluting corporations; a strengthened economy; cleaner air; protection against volatile fossil fuel costs; increased national security; renewed economic competitiveness; food security; a reduced trade deficit; water security; revitalized rural communities; energy grid security; protection of biodiversity; or the need to address the climate crisis, replacing fossil fuels with renewable energy is central to achieving it.

The U.S. has an undeniable economic self-interest, and moral imperative, to lead a worldwide green industrial revolution, but if these renewable industry captains won't do it for America, or their children and grandchildren, how about for their bottom lines? The next ten years are pivotal. How we look coming out the other side hinges in large part on whether America's green energy leaders can find it within themselves to answer the call of history. Fortunately, vision, like political will, is a renewable resource.