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Seizing the Moment

All the hand-wringing about seized-up capital markets hasn’t stopped environmental visionaries from promoting their scenarios for a clean, green–and robust–economy. Indeed, many have seized  the moment to suggest that an all-out attack on climate change and pollution could be just what the doctor ordered.

They’re being egged on by the President-elect, who offered this nugget in a recent pre-election interview with Time magazine:

“…we are just going to completely revamp how we use energy in a way that deals with climate change, deals with national security and drives our economy, that’s going to be my number one priority when I get into office, assuming, obviously, that we have done enough to just stabilize the immediate economic situation.”

That’s a whopping assumption. Nevertheless the advocacy group Environment California has released its own vision, asserting that clean energy is “the foundation of America’s economic future.” The group’s Blueprint for Economic Recovery and Environmental Protection Through Clean Energy Solutions is not groundbreaking but rather an aggregation of ideas and studies that have been put forth already, leading to the same general conclusion.

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The report attempts to bundle the potential of renewable energy sources such as solar, wind and geothermal, coupled with aggressive conservation measures, which it says could alone cut the nation’s electric use by a quarter.

For example, Environment California suggests that we might set aside 9% of Nevada (that’s about 10,000 square miles–imagine Massachusetts covered border-to-border with solar panels) for solar-thermal installations or harness the wind potential of five interior states (the Dakotas, Kansas, Montana and Texas), either one could cover the nation’s entire electric bill. Of course, either of these approaches would require massive, intrusive distribution networks to get the power where it’s needed, so I these ideas may be intended as inspirational, not literal.

Another idea, which requires very little distribution infrastructure, is carpeting the nation’s rooftops with photovoltaic solar panels. The group says that would provide about 70% of our energy needs.

The report also advocates for cutting our oil consumption in half, though it does not specify by when.

How does all this translate to economic redemption? By creating “millions of jobs.” According to the report:

“…repowering America will plant the seeds of economic growth and revitalization across the country. And by creating the world’s largest market for renewable energy and energy efficient technology, we will give American companies a leg up in the most important economic competition of the 21st century – the race to supply environmentally sound technologies to the rest of the world.”

The report cites several studies to support this conclusion. Some were done several years ago and may contain assumptions that don’t quite hold up in today’s recessionary, capital-constrained environment. The more recent work includes a University of Tennessee study from 2006, which projected that converting a quarter of U.S. electric production and transportation fuels would, over about 20 years, yield more than five million jobs.

You are guaranteed to hear a great deal more on this theme, as a new administration takes charge with it’s “number one priority.” Still unanswered is who will provide the capital–and the incentives to steer capital–into the clean, green economy of our dreams.

Photo: Installing solar panels on the roof at KQED.

400,000 Jobs or Bust. Or Both.

There’s an interesting juxtaposition nowadays between the grim economic/public funding forecasts and the eye-popping estimates of job growth in the “green-collar” economy…at least in the ever-optimistic Golden State.

Given the current meltdown in the capital markets, there is understandable fear that investment in renewable energy and carbon-reducing technology will be nipped in the bud. Recent articles in the New York Times and Times of London reflect the new angst.

But against this backdrop of doom, predictions are popping out all over about the coming economic boom, if we can somehow stay the course toward a low-carbon economy. This week number-crunchers at UC Berkeley issued the bold declaration that through energy efficiency alone, California can add 403,000 new jobs. David Roland-Holst and his colleagues assume a scant 1% annual improvement in overall energy efficiency, in order to get there. And by the way, they say, you can pencil an extra $76 billion in gross state product into the bargain. We’ll be spending so much less to light, heat, cool, and move us around, that it will free up billions of dollars and an outbreak of general prosperity will ensue. Sound like Pollyanna gone wild? The authors say we’ve done it before.

A recent economic analysis by the California Air Resources Board predicted that full implementation of the sweeping Global Warming Solutions Act of 2006 (CA AB-32) would add 100,000 jobs by 2020. The astute reader might wonder how, since energy efficiency is just one facet of AB-32, can the Berkeley number be so much higher. The answer, according to Roland-Holst, is that the Air Board estimate is “innovation-neutral.” In other words, it assumes that nothing new is invented on the efficiency front.

Hear more details as KQED’s Peter Jon Shuler speaks with  Roland-Holst about his methodology.