Buy American windmills, solar panels…even if America won’t

The clean-energy economy is starting to take serious shape.

While the feeding frenzy among clean-energy companies continues on Capitol Hill, and lawmakers try to hammer out a new energy bill, President Obama is leaving nothing to chance.

On Friday, he invited a select group of clean-energy technology manufacturers to the White House to discuss how to double U.S. exports of clean-energy tech within five years.

Administration officials detailed the purpose for the meeting, and panel discussions delved into how to get ideas and innovation into factories and into U.S. and international markets.
I spoke with some people at the forum and they didn’t know in advance exactly what the meeting would cover. The White House revealed its agenda Friday morning.

Chris Lu, the official liaison between the President and his Cabinet, told the group the stimulus poured $2.4 billion into battery research and development.
The U.S. held only 2% of the world battery market a few years ago. “In a couple of years, we’ll have 40% of the world’s capacity,” Lu said.

Lu had been deputy chief counsel for Congressman Henry Waxman, before the California Democrat became chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, a position he currently holds.

Ron Bloom, senior counselor for U.S. manufacturing policy says, “We need to fundamentally rethink the way we produce energy.”

In order to reduce oil demand, and put Americans back to work, he says the U.S. needs to develop its clean energy manufacturing.

“The White house has put together this forum because your work…is going to be a big part of the solution to both those problems,” Bloom told the manufacturers at the meeting.

During his speech, Commerce Secretary Gary Locke said certainly we need a price on carbon to develop the U.S. clean-energy economy. That price will kick investors into gear and get some of the dusty innovations out of our national labs into commercialization. But, Congress is taking care of that, he said.

Abroad, nations such as China, Indonesia, India, and Germany are searching for clean energy technology to meet their individual climate goals. Those technologies can and should come from the U.S., Locke said.

Locke added that the price of oil should not dictate the momentum of the clean-energy movement, a mantra overheard several times during the forum.

That’s what happened in the early 1980s when former President Carter’s work on a clean-energy economy was stymied by the crashing price of oil and increased quantity after the paralyzing oil embargo of the 1970s.

“If the next few decades of energy policy look like the last few decades, then the naysayers may be right. Our challenge is to write a different story,” Locke told the manufacturers.

Writing a different story is going to take writing a lot more new legislation and regulation, manufacturers said.

Ok, so let’s get to work, I thought.

But it’s not that easy. According to the manufacturers, getting a permit or license to operate their alternative technology in the U.S. is quite a feat. It takes years to site a windmill, for example. But what about the transmission needed to move that power to load centers, where people need electricity? That could take years as well.

You can’t get a permit or license without a commercialized product, tested in the market. Bringing innovation to commercialization is a step that requires capital. But who’s going to fund a project that may never get used?

Details, details.

Trey Taylor, president of the tidal/wave energy giant, Verdant Power, said his technology, generates profit overseas. He’s hamstrung here by process, red tape he calls “underfunded and overworked bureaucrats”

Taylor says, permitting is clearly a problem. “The regulating process is so slow and that’s why we can’t get the capital,” Taylor said.

The U.S. doesn’t have enough incentives, either, he told his fellow panelists. “There have to be economic incentives…Ontario [Canada] is providing a 40-year feed-in tariff,” to subsidize alternative energy sources. “That’s why we’re there. It’s why we’ll go to the U.K,” Taylor said.

“China will pay us $1.15 a kilowatt/hour [for the power from Verdant].  As a businessman, I’ve gotta go there,” Taylor said.

Joyce Ferris, a panelist and investment guru who founded Blue Hill Partners, said, “The bottom line is companies need more than just investment capital to move forward.”
Companies need help selling their product. The U.S. government needs to be a primary buyer of the power, a “champion” of the alternative-energy technology American companies produce.

That’s something I heard repeated. Who is going to buy the power in the U.S.? And, who is going to buy the U.S. technologies if the U.S. is not even brave enough to use it?

At one point, Scott Sklar, president of The Stella Group said government labs are slowing down technology development.

Of course Stella is a strategic marketing and policy firm here in Washington that wants to leverage its clean energy technology clients’ innovations.
Sklar said the labs need to have a kind of portal so they can work directly with the manufacturers.

I couldn’t help but feel the negativity around me. Come on, I thought. Just open up your factories and build your flywheels and floating windmills. Come on, listen to Locke.

But as the meeting went on, it became obvious that each company was frustrated with the status quo. They saw not a paved road ahead on this new great global race but a path of potholes, speed bumps and dead ends.

Either there was no carbon price, no investment, or no commercialization. Or, resource-constrained national labs or red-tape-riddled regulation were to blame.

It appears that the U.S. is fighting headwinds when it comes to developing a clean-technology economy, mainly from fossil interests and those fearful of change. Yet there is a sense among U.S. manufacturers that regulation in other countries is more streamlined, projects get online and yield actual profits.

Until now, the Department of Energy and the Environmental Protection Agency have been the faces of administration’s campaign to get the US to win the global clean energy race.

From Lisa Jackson at EPA to Steven Chu at DOE, and now Gary Locke at Commerce, the disciples have tried to convey President Obama’s sense of urgency.

“The nation that leads the clean-energy economy is the nation that leads the global economy and America must be that nation,” Locke said.

We’ll see more comprehensively what the manufacturers’ reaction is to the administration’s five-year goal to double exports.

Commerce is working with DOE to draft a National Renewable Energy and Energy Efficiency Export Strategy this fall.

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