Claiming The Clean Energy Future: A Seven-Point Action Plan For Repowering America

by Ron Pernick, via Clean Edge

Mitt Romney’s acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention last week ought to serve as an urgent wake-up call to anyone that cares about America’s energy, environmental, and economic future. At the podium, Romney chided President Obama on global warming, and his hoped-for GOP administration is advancing an “energy independence” plan built much more on the polluting industries of the past than the innovative clean technologies of the present and future. Somehow, global warming, renewables, and other clean-tech pursuits have become some of his favorite punch lines.

But clean tech is far from a laughing matter. Instead it’s the stuff of major multinationals such as GE, Toyota, and Siemens who are investing and making billions of dollars annually from their clean-tech initiatives; of startups including Tesla, SolarCity, and Agilyx who are respectively working to innovate electric vehicles, solar power finance, and plastics recycling; and of young Americans across our nation working to advance clean technologies, address climate change, and build thriving for-profit and non-profit ventures.

And contrary to what some would like you to believe, renewables energy production isn’t a marginal industry; it’s expanding rapidly in importance and penetration. In 2010 three states got more than 10 percent of their electricity generation from wind, solar, and geothermal. One year later, the number had doubled to six states including South Dakota and Iowa, which now generate approximately 20 percent of their total electricity from the wind alone. Clean tech isn’t shrinking; it’s starting to scale up to significant percentages for utilities, cities, states, and nations.

Perhaps this growth is exactly why some entrenched interests – and the politicians they fund – are working so hard to demonize clean tech, spread misinformation, and demoralize its supporters. But this partisan behavior overshadows a critical point: clean tech has historically been a bipartisan endeavor, and even to this day is supported by governors, mayors, and others on both sides of the political aisle. Even more important, renewables are overwhelmingly supported by citizens of all stripes and affiliations in poll after poll.

Three Energy Pillars: Renewables, Natural Gas, and Efficiency

In our just-released book, Clean Tech Nation, which looks broadly at the entire clean-tech industry, Clean Edge senior editor Clint Wilder and I make the case for a U.S. energy future built on renewables, responsible natural gas, and efficiency. Our research shows that most of the developed world simply doesn’t need new coal or nuclear to meet their energy objectives. Instead, the world’s industrialized nations could pursue:

  • Large-scale deployment of both centralized and distributed renewables, including solar, wind, and geothermal. Most of the 34 industrialized nations in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) can reach 30 percent or more renewables by 2030. This includes Japan, Germany, and the U.S.
  • The targeted use of current and next-generation natural gas power plants. A number of manufacturers, including GE, have launched advanced natural-gas-fired power plants that can be powered up and down quickly and efficiently. This means that next-generation gas-fired plants can act as perfect partners with intermittent renewables, offering an easy on-and-off backup to wind and solar power sources. Rather than pitting natural gas against renewables, states, utilities, and regulatory bodies can use these new plants, along with current low-emissions gas plants, in their arsenal of technologies to reduce emissions and reliance on more carbon-intensive fossil fuels, especially coal.
  • Aggressive investments in a smart, two-way grid. The electrification of automotive transportation and the growing requirements for reliable energy storage and backup for a data-driven economy will be the underpinning of a new smart grid. Nations that invest in smart meters, reliable networks that can accommodate the two-way flow of electrons, and resilient networks that do not result in cascading blackouts will be in a better position to accommodate the advanced generation technologies of the future.
  • The cost-effective and low-hanging fruit of energy efficiency. Light bulbs that use significantly less electricity, windows that insulate much better than their predecessors, and data centers optimized for squeezing the most out of every watt provide great hoards of untapped “negawatt” power, reducing the need for new generation plants and enabling renewables to increase their overall share of the energy pie.

But what steps can enable such an advanced energy future, and how can the U.S. lead the way?

In Clean Tech Nation we offer a Seven-Point Action Plan for Repowering America that is bipartisan, grounded, and most importantly, we believe, achievable. Our plan’s supporters to date include a former oilman, a past president, current bank executives, nonprofit leaders, CEOs, and many others. It includes key action items that we believe can renew American leadership, and ensure the nation’s future economic competitiveness across the industrial spectrum, from energy and transportation to waste and water.

Our recommended actions are:

Seven-Point Action Plan

There are no silver bullets, no single actions that can guarantee success. It will take a diversified portfolio approach. But we believe that the U.S., perhaps more than any other nation, is in a unique position to lead in everything from new financial models for renewables and efficiency deployment to open standards for the smart grid and green buildings. We’ve done it before in the computer and Internet revolutions, and in rail, air, and space transportation. We can do it again if we have the leadership and the will.

At the national level, clean tech has become highly polarized during this election cycle. But, as noted earlier, multinational corporations, investors, and a crop of motivated innovators are aggressively exploiting the opportunities of cleaner, greener, smarter processes. At the local and regional level, mayors and governors, both Democrats and Republicans, are supporting the growth of clean-tech industries. And the majority of U.S. citizens believe that our nation’s future should be firmly planted in advanced energy technologies, not the polluting fossil fuels that powered the last century. For the sake of our nation, let’s hope that whoever is sitting in the White House in January 2013 will support the efforts of Americans across the country in moving forward, not backwards, and in emboldening America’s technology-driven, problem-solving culture. Nothing less than our nation’s economic competitiveness and the health of future generations relies on it.

You can learn more about Clean Tech Nation here.

Ron Pernick is founder and managing director of research and advisory firm Clean Edge and the coauthor of two books on clean-tech business trends and innovation, Clean Tech Nation (HarperCollins, 2012) and The Clean Tech Revolution (HarperCollins, 2007).

4 Responses to Claiming The Clean Energy Future: A Seven-Point Action Plan For Repowering America

  1. James T.H. says:

    Lets hope that climate change finally gets addressed in Obama’s speech tonight. We don’t have much time to turn the environment around. Democracy Now! did an interesting segment on this and interviewed Betsy Palmer, a political consultant. They discussed possible reasons why the President may have backed away from a firm stance on climate change. Check it out at, they’ve been doing a 2 hour show on the conventions and it’s definitely worth checking out.

  2. Ron, thanks for the article. At first read it seems that all of the recommendations are sensible and feasible. I am left with this question: What about a tax/fee/name-your-word on carbon? I do not see it mentioned. The closest thing is phasing out energy subsidies and that is not close to the same thing. I know that many scientists and economists unequivocally state that until we ‘fee’ the tremendous externalities of carbon production…we will simply not come close to doing what has to be done as far as limiting further GTs of carbon emissions. The market forces- both ‘natural’ and nefarious-that support fossil fuel usage are just too strong. Perhaps you do not address this because it seems, politically, a ‘non-starter’? That may be so- but it does not change the physics of GHG accumulation and it does not address the reality of un-feed fossil fuel production. Thanks.

  3. Ron Pernick says:

    Hi David,
    I’ve been a vocal supporter for a carbon tax. However, you hit the proverbial nail on the head in your comments: I don’t see a carbon tax as politically feasible in the current political climate in the U.S. Our goal in “Clean Tech Nation” was to develop a plan that could get broad bipartisan support, and still significantly move the needle. The book goes into each of the proposed plan items in depth – and we believe would go a long way in ensuring U.S. ongoing leadership. They include a national RPS which would note supercede the right of states in pursuing more stringent goals; the elimination of coal, oil, and gas subsidies now followed by nuclear and renewables over a 5-10 year period; and tax code changes to enable the use of Master Limited Partnerships and other financial tools for renewables, efficiency, and smart grid build out (and not limit these tools simply to the oil and gas industries).

  4. AA says:

    Looks like I may have to add another book to the growing backlog on my desk.

    From what you write here though, I’m skeptical about your thesis. You start by slamming Mitt Romney, but then propose an agenda which is far closer to his proposed “no regrets” approach than the actions we actually need to be taking.

    There are many things in this post I’d like to talk about, I’ll try to hit a few of the high points.

    First, a note on natural gas. I agree that it has some very desirable properties, especially the ability to ramp up quickly. That said, saying natural gas has half the emissions of coal misses the point that in absolute terms it’s still terrible. Half of “catastrophic” emissions isn’t necessarily acceptable.

    You are pushing the idea that there is a kind of “happy/futuristic/no one gets hurt” solution to climate change. The more I learn, the more evidence I see that that isn’t true (read Socolow, Myhrvold/Caldeira, MacKay, Tom Murphy, etc). I think there’s a fundamental flaw in starting from what’s easily achieved and trying to covertly scale that up into a civilization changing movement. We need to have the confidence to tell people the truth: this will not be easy, certain industries are going to be devastated, and a lot of views are going to have wind turbines in them.

    Since your proposals address climate change indirectly, there’s a very real danger of advancing a policy that makes no real progress on climate. See Germany for example: they have lots of rooftop solar and efficient appliances, but they’re still building lignite coal plants (“dirt burners”). From a climate perspective, it’s duplicitous.

    You say (on your website) that your plan is bold. What, exactly, is so bold about it?