By Barbara Kessler
Green Right Now
California voters — at least 61 percent of them — appear convinced that working to cleanse the air, fight climate change and ramp up clean energy sources will propel the economy forward.
In squashing Prop 23, an attempt by oil interests to overturn the state’s landmark climate legislation, Californians signaled by a clear majority that they weren’t swayed by Big Oil’s argument that Americans “can’t afford” clean air and clean energy during these shaky economic times.
Voters may even be saying the opposite – that developing clean energy makes sense environmentally, and provides a way out of the recession.
There’s no telling exactly, but that’s how the bloc of clean air, public health and business advocates that fought Prop 23 shaped their argument to preserve California’s strong greenhouse gas reduction law. That pollution-limiting 2006 law, AB 32, set up the most ambitious greenhouse gas emissions limits in the U.S., creating an open invitation to green energy industries to build a new clean economy.
Prop 23, largely funded by Texas oil companies, Valero and Tesoro, and the climate change-denying Koch brothers, would have suspended AB 32, allowing unchecked air pollution, until unemployment was lower than 5.5 percent.
Californians saw through this false trade-off.
Fortunately for those opposed to Prop 23, Californians have a long history with clean energy and see their stake in it. They also have some godawful air pollution, and know how asthma can deplete a child and how smog can deter any kind of business development, which were likely factors in the “No” vote.
But given the economy, this decision had a lot to do with jobs.
California’s Silicon Valley is the global center for solar innovation, and several big commercial solar installations are in the pipeline for the state, starting with the recently approved Ivanpah solar plant that will be built on public lands in the Mojave Desert. Other big solar projects include the Blythe solar installation by Palo Verde Solar and Chevron’s Lucerne Valley solar project. These will create thousands of manufacturing and construction jobs, and in the neighborhood of a few hundred permanent operational jobs at each facility.
California also hosts the nation’s biggest solar roof top initiative and leads in producing photovoltaic roof top panels. Photo voltaic development creates manufacturing and installation jobs and provides homeowners a way to directly reduce their energy use. If that’s not “energy independence,” with the lightest possible carbon footprint, someone must explain what is.
California ranks behind like Texas in wind generation (it is third among states), but it was the birthplace of American wind power back in the 1970s and ’80s, and remains home to the iconic wind testing area in Telachapi Valley. Wind, including offshore wind, could prosper under California’s supportive legislation.
The geothermal industry, which gathered in Sacramento last week for its largest ever annual convention, also has a significant foothold in the Golden State, which is considered to be the world center of geothermal technical expertise. The Energy Source Imperial geothermal plant in Southern California broke ground in October and expects to generate around 1,000 jobs.
In rejecting Prop 23, California has protected its nascent and long-established clean energy industries.
Will this view have credence across the country as the newly reconfigured Congress takes over in Washington?
The Democrats, who have been the most vocal champions of climate action, are smarting from lost seats in both houses of Congress. This does not portend well for climate action.
But the Republicans are talking about a mandate to right the nation’s economy and create jobs. Will that mean they’ll look more seriously at clean energy as a jobs engine? And if so, can they bring themselves to support the measures that the clean energy sectors say they need — tax breaks for wind, solar and geothermal production to level the playing field with oil and coal, and a Renewable Electricity Standard (RES) that will push utilities to accept these new industries and alert investors that clean energy has long-term legs in the United States?
That’s a big, complex question. And it’s not the only one.
Will the “dirty” fossil fuel industries, mainly oil and coal, be asked to pay the true price of their resource extraction in any way, through fees, taxes or carbon pricing? It’s doubtful this issue will get much traction anytime soon, with politicians focused on tax cuts, saving or repealing health care reforms, jockeying for the 2012 elections and reducing (or not) the deficit and entitlements.
The Republicans who now control the House haven’t been friendly to climate proposals so far, and many have been elected with the help of oil, coal and gas money, as well as contributions from the climate change-denying U.S. Chamber of Commerce. The commentator consensus here is that cap-and-trade as we know it is “dead”.
Already the poor economy and inattention from lawmakers are dragging on clean energy and clean tech. Venture Capital investment in clean tech fell in the third quarter of 2010, according to Ernst & Young, though the report noted that there were signs of “continuing strength” in the clean tech sector.
The U.S. wind industry, which supports 85,000 American jobs, just experienced its slowest quarter since 2007. The American Wind Energy Association blamed the stumble on the lack of long-term U.S. policy, specifically the absence of a RES, which has driven development in other nations.
China and Europe, not the U.S., are now poised to lead globally in wind, and have made four times the investment in that industry, AWEA reported last week. Today, AWEA called for the presumed new Speaker of the House John Boehner to make good on his promises to create jobs and grow the economy, and reminded the newly and re-elected politicians across the nation that the latest Harris poll showed 87 percent of Americans want more wind energy, implying that nothing, and no one, has a greater mandate.
“Congress needs to put America’s wind industry back on track,” AWEA urged.
Clean energy still has many powerful elected elected advocates. AWEA pointed to California’s new-again Gov. Jerry Brown, Colorado’s new Gov. John Hickenlooper and Massachusetts Gov. Patrick Deval, among others.
Pennsylvania’s governor, Ed Rendell, who’s steered his state toward cleaner power sources, also comes to mind. (As well as many who are no longer in office, like Govs. Bill Ritter (Colo.) and Bill Richardson (N.M.) who stepped out of office, Iowa Gov. Chet Culver, who was defeated in the Republican sweep.)
Today, Rendell named clean energy development as one of his top three priorities for Washington. The challenge, of course, is that neither Brown nor Rendell nor Hickenlooper are in Washington. That may say something about where clean energy will have to find shelter in the near term, at the local and state level.
If states get competitive about clean energy growth, and successfully build the right support networks, many believe they can have success without federal participation. That’s a message could ripple back to Washington, which could decide to speed the process with the aforementioned RES and grid improvements that can must come from federal powers.
For now, there’s a distinct glimmer of hope that California will continue to incubate change. If this large state, with an economy that eclipses many nations, continues on its voter-endorsed new energy path, it may just demonstrate to the rest of the U.S. that our livelihood is staked to the earth and the wind; and the light at the end of the tunnel — that’s the sun.
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