By: Clint Wilder
In this critical election year, clean energy is not high on most voters' lists of issues that will determine their choices in November. In the recent series of Democratic presidential debates, renewable energy was mentioned only in passing by candidates Howard Dean, John Kerry, and Dennis Kucinich, and was never the central focus of a question from the journalists querying the candidates during those events. Those in the energy industry know that clean tech is a crucial issue for the future of the U.S. and world economy and environment, but how can it cut through the chatter about more prominent, gut-level campaign issues to earn a place in the national dialogue? There's a simple answer. Clean energy has everything to do with the issue that many polls and pundits say is number one on the minds of voters: jobs. The benefits of a cleaner-energy future have succeeded in forging the long-sought, so- called "blue-green" coalition between labor leaders and environmentalists. Last month, Sierra Club executive director Carl Pope and United Auto Workers president Ron Gettelfinger came together to co-author a New York Times op-ed column opposing the Bush administration's proposal to scrap fleetwide fuel economy standards for U.S. automakers. And the Apollo Alliance, a non-profit formed last year to promote a job- creating renewable energy policy, is officially supported by 15 environmental protection organizations and 17 labor unions including the AFL-CIO Industrial Union Council, the UAW, and the United Mine Workers of America. The mounting evidence is impossible to ignore: clean energy creates jobs. The Renewable Energy Policy Project in Washington, D.C. follows this issue closely; one REPP study found that wind power creates 25% more jobs than coal-fired plants. And renewable energy jobs are often the kind of well-paying, high-skill, locally-based manufacturing positions whose decline and migration to other countries is a top political issue. "The Bush administration implies there's a tradeoff between environmental protection and jobs, and it's just not true," says Aimee Christensen, executive director of Environment 2004, an advocacy group promoting awareness of environmental and clean energy issues in this year's elections. "The 1990s took us beyond that old either/or debate - we had environmental protection and [regulatory] enforcement and one of the greatest periods of job creation in history. Now we have neither." One of the most compelling presentations at last week's Power-Gen Renewable Energy conference in Las Vegas was an assessment of the potential impact of a renewable portfolio standard (10% of electricity from renewables by 2015) in the state of Pennsylvania. Funded by two foundations in the state and conducted by power-plant construction giant Black & Veatch, the study had many of the 850 conference attendees buzzing about its professionalism, thoroughness, and results. Over the next two decades, Black & Veatch concluded that a 10% RPS would produce three times as many job-years in the state as "business as usual," which in Pennsylvania means 94% of the state's power from coal and nuclear generation. With the RPS, job earnings in the period would be $4.7 billion instead of $1.9 billion without it, pumping an additional $10.1 billion in goods, services, and tax revenue into the state economy. There are an increasing number of state and local efforts throughout the U.S. to promote the job-creation and financial benefits of clean energy. One example is Energy Nevada, which works with northern Nevada municipalities and utility Sierra Pacific Power to promote the economic benefits of locally generated wind power and other renewables. "It's all about creating linkages of interests," says Energy Nevada vice president Eric Thompson. "Local jurisdictions care a great deal about jobs and economic vitality, as well as a cleaner environment. When you can come up with creative, public-private partnerships to combine those interests, it's very powerful." For far too long, in too many corners, two big myths have prevailed. One is that renewable energy is an expensive, off-in-the-future luxury to be developed as a niche sideline when times are flush. The other is that government tightening and enforcement of environmental regulations, and policy implementations like RPS's, hurt local economies and cost jobs. Experts like Navigant Consulting and Clean Edge, Inc. have convincingly dispelled the first myth; according to recent reports from both organizations the clean energy sector is currently worth between $13 and $17 billion. Says Navigant director Lisa Frantzis, in a clear but important statement of the obvious: "This is not a niche." The second myth still needs some work, but it's encouraging to see such a broad spectrum of business, labor, and environmental voices out there helping to debunk it. Renewable energy is our best hope to build a future of sane interaction with the environment, stable global climate, and reduced geopolitical conflict. But for better or worse, elections are usually decided by issues facing people firmly focused on the present day. Linking clean energy to the here-and-now issues of jobs and economic growth can help dispel that second myth of jobs versus the environment -- and help put candidates in office whose actions can bury the myth forever. Clint Wilder is Clean Edge's contributing editor. E-mail him at wilder[at]cleanedge[dot]com.