The Future of Clean Energy

CAPAF President and CEO John Podesta hosts a forum focusing on developing a plan to lead the transformation of U.S. energy policy.

Find out more about the National Clean Energy Project at its homepage.

“The next generation that’s coming after us will look back and assess what we did or didn’t do. And they’ll ask either one of two questions: Either, ‘what were you thinking? How could you have done this?’ or they’ll ask, ‘How did you find the courage to step up to the plate and do the right thing?’” said former Vice President Al Gore Monday at the National Clean Energy Project held in Washington, D.C. and sponsored by the Center for American Progress Action Fund. Gore joined the moderator, former Senator Tim Wirth (D-CO), in a discussion that focused on the future of clean energy production in the United States.

CAPAF CEO and President John Podesta hosted the event, and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) was Honorary Chair.


Joining Wirth, Podesta, and Gore on the panel were former President Bill Clinton, Energy Secretary Steven Chu, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), Senator Jeff Bingaman (D-NM), Representative Ed Markey (D-MA) and energy executive T. Boone Pickens. Also participating in the conversation were AFL-CIO president John Sweeny, CAPAF Senior Fellow Van Jones, Waterkeeper Alliance Board Chairman Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., and former Governor George Pataki (R-NY).

After Gore’s comments, Speaker Pelosi stressed that “we have to have an enormous vision about this as we go out to the American people,” while Senate Majority Leader Reid pointed to the recently passed recovery bill as progress on addressing energy security and climate.“[The economy recovery bill] was a giant step in the right direction, with $11 billion alone for the national energy grid—or as some have said, such as Energy Secretary Chu—a national energy highway.” The panel concurred that the stimulus bill passed by Congress and signed into law in February was a significant down payment on a clean energy future for America. Reid added that the federal government must be a key player in the nation’s efforts to produce clean energy and fight global warming.

Interior Secretary Salazar agreed that government must be involved, especially in the area of energy transmission. “On a personal note,” he added, “we must remember the REA [Rural Electrification Administration]. We didn’t get energy out into the San Luis Valley of Colorado until 1981. And as we all know, energy, especially green energy, is dependent on transmission.” Many participants supported proposals for a government build out of the transmission grid that will be primarily responsible for carrying this new green energy from rural areas where it’s produced to major cities and rural communities across the nation.

President Bill Clinton highlighted energy efficiency as a critical element of global warming reduction plans. “If the United States, India, China, and Russia met the current efficiency standards of the Japanese, it would take us 25 percent of the way to reducing 80 percent of the world’s carbon emissions by 2050,” he said. Although the funding for clean energy provided by the stimulus was an important first step, Clinton concluded that working with other nations was one of the most critical steps the U.S. government could take that would ultimately affect climate change.

Green job creation is another area in which the United States can take the lead, noted AFL-CIO President John Sweeny. “There is an important opportunity here for the United States to become a leader in technology and manufacturing capacity,” he noted. The National Building and Construction Trades Department, a national alliance headed by AFL-CIO, has put in place 11,000 apprenticeship-training programs for green job training.

Van Jones, a Senior Fellow at CAP, also thought education should be a core component to building out American green infrastructure. He mentioned the Green for All Academy he started with Gore to specifically address the issue of training America’s skilled workers for a shift into green energy production.

Lee Scott, chairman of the executive committee of the board of directors at Wal-Mart, focused on consumer choice, noting that the “average working people in America do care [about green products]—but they cannot afford to pay more” for them. According to Scott, businesses must improve energy efficiency and offer increasingly green options to customers. “What we have found at Wal-Mart,” he added, “is that when we give a choice that allows working people to save money and do things that are good for the environment, they pick the things that will save money and are good for the environment.”

The push for green energy production has been picking up steam among a few prominent business leaders such as Scott and T. Boone Pickens, founder of BP Capital and principal of BPC and TBP Investments Management. Pickens has championed a new energy model for American in recent years. While warning that the United States must cease its dependence on foreign oil, he reminded the panel “it is important to remember that wind does not power an 18-wheeler.” Pickens believed that clean natural gas would be a viable alternative for heavy diesel-run trucks and machinery, while a clean energy grid for residential and commercial uses is essential to expand the use of wind and solar power..

The discussion concluded with Wirth repeating the primary goal of the conference. “Rather than spending more time admiring the problem,” he said, “the purpose of today was to break through and see if we could find real solutions.” Overall, the panel accomplished its primary purpose—to raise the visibility of climate change and find working solutions among prominent policymakers and leaders from the business, labor, and nonprofit communities.

Find out more about the National Clean Energy Project at its homepage.

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