If the recent election taught us anything, it’s that we need to re-frame the politics of clean energy.
Sure, advocates celebrated a victory last November by keeping President Obama and many others who understand the importance of the clean energy economy in office. After more than a year of spurious political attacks against Solyndra, green jobs, and the clean energy stimulus, that was a considerable achievement.
But those victories have come at a considerable cost.
In Washington, some of the political hostility has died down after the election. However, as negotiations around raising the debt ceiling unfold, there are already renewed calls to cut federal funding for key programs supporting renewable energy, efficiency, and other cleantech industries. That’s because many Republicans see cleantech as just another special interest feeding off government — not as a core driver of environmentally-minded business in the 21st century.
A lot has changed since since the mid-2000′s when the sector had overwhelming bipartisan support in national politics. Two things happened: The cleantech sector got a considerable boost through the stimulus, making it a punching bag for conservatives targeting government spending; and the commercialization of fracking technologies caused a resurgence in the U.S. oil & gas sector, directly challenging clean energy.
As the editors of MIT’s Technology Review pointed out recently, making cleantech a part of the stimulus package was necessary and important for helping lay the foundation for a clean energy transition. But simply selling it as a short-term jobs creator did some damage to the political credibility of the sector.
“We cautioned against conflating economic stimulus with a sustainable and effective energy policy. Leading economists noted that job creation needed to happen quickly, while transforming our energy infrastructure would take decades,” wrote the editors.
Of course, there were a lot of real and undeniable successes spurred by the stimulus package that deserve to be mentioned. (Time Magazine’s Michael Grunwald does a great job reporting on the many success stories in clean energy and other sectors in his recent book on the stimulus).
Consider this: In 2006, wind turbine manufacturers were only able source 35 percent of components from American companies. Today, in large part due to the stimulus, there are now 500 manufacturing facilities in operation around the U.S. that supply nearly 70 percent of components for American wind farms. That’s a doubling of domestic sourcing in five years.
Since 2008, America’s production of renewable electricity has nearly doubled; we have increasedhome weatherization by 1,000 percent; the industry was saved from a complete financial collapse by a Treasury grant program that supported 75,000 jobs; the solar and wind industries now support nearly 200,000 American jobs combined; and economy-wide, there are roughly 2.7 million green jobs spread across a range of sectors.
We should embrace these successes. But when taking them in a broader economic context, we must also state the obvious: The green jobs revolution that was touted before the stimulus package passed did not fully emerge.
That’s because the economic revolution spurred by clean energy isn’t really a revolution — it’s a multi-decade evolution. While this sector will certainly continue to create good American jobs, they don’t just appear in a four-year political time frame. Combine these less-than-expected green jobs numbers with a few high-profile bankruptcies of flashy government-backed cleantech companies, and you get a toxic political result.