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A Primer on the U.S. Clean Energy Economy: What It Is, Why It Matters

Attempts to quantify the size, scope and benefits of the fledgling clean economy are in their earliest stages. What do we know so far?

Feb 28, 2012
(Page 3 of 4 )
A youth-led green jobs rally in Washington in Oct. 2009

It wasn't until the 2004 presidential election that clean economy concepts made it to the national stage, Hendricks said. In the few years that followed green jobs became a cornerstone issue for Democrats.

Worldwide similar discussions were taking place.

In October 2006, the acclaimed economist Lord Nicholas Stern released his seminal report on the cost of climate change to the world economy. The report concluded that doing nothing to slow global warming would deflate the global economy by one-fifth, but investing in renewables and efficiency would yield "a wide range of opportunities for growth and development along the way."

In February 2007, former president Bill Clinton took up that theme in a speech to the House Democratic Caucus, in which he urged lawmakers to help overhaul how the nation produces and consumes energy. "We ought to pursue this relentlessly. There are millions of jobs to be created," he told the caucus.

Months later the first green jobs bill, the Green Jobs Act of 2007, was introduced in Congress. Apollo helped craft the measure with Green for All, a then-new initiative by Van Jones. The provision authorized $125 million a year for green jobs training. It was later folded into the Bush administration's Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007. It wasn't funded until two years later.

In 2008, the green jobs debate broadened to address calls for a new economic system that could meet growing demand for renewable power.

That year Hendricks and Rep. Jay Inslee (D-Wash.), one of the early champions of the clean economy in Congress, published a book called "Apollo's Fire: Igniting America's Clean Energy Economy." In it they told stories of how clean energy investments were transforming supply chains and local economies nationwide. It was one of the first publications to use the term "clean energy economy," and it helped cement its use. Clinton provided the forward, calling the book "a field guide for our future."

The clean economy and the recession—what's the connection?

By the 2008 presidential elections the clean economy had become a frequent topic on the campaign trails of both parties. "With green technologies, we can create thousands, millions of jobs in America," declared Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), the GOP nominee, in a campaign speech.

The idea became more popular as the global economic downturn spread and millions of Americans lost their jobs.

President Obama's 2009 stimulus bill provided more than $50 billion, or six percent of all spending, to spur renewable energy deployment and clean energy industries and jobs. The stimulus included $2.3 billion in tax credits for clean energy manufacturers and $500 million to fund the green job training programs that were part of the 2007 energy act. Hendricks, who by then was working with the Center for American Progress, helped craft the measure's clean economy components.

Later that year Pew released the first study quantifying the U.S. clean economy. And in his 2010 State of the Union address, Obama mentioned the clean economy. "The nation that leads the clean energy economy will be the nation that leads the global economy," he said. In California, clean economy sectors shed fewer jobs than the overall economy during the economic slump, according to research released this month.

Where do things stand at the federal level?

Experts say federal support of the clean economy has arrived at a crossroads.

Federal stimulus programs that helped propel clean technologies to commercial scale are drying up. Popular subsidies like the 1603 Treasury cash grant program for small solar firms and the loan guarantee program for large-scale renewable energy installations have expired. Others, most notably the wind production tax credit, are facing expiration this year.

The government so far has failed to implement a national clean energy standard that would set a requirement for low-carbon production and ignite demand for rooftop solar and wind farms. "A lot of the public policy we have in place is disappearing, and a lot of the public policy that we don't have, we desperately need," Cuttino of Pew said.

Who's opposed to clean economy spending, and why?

Republicans in Congress have grown increasingly opposed to taxpayer-backed clean energy programs. They are supported by fossil fuel industry interests and libertarian think tanks.

One of the organizations, the Heritage Foundation, a conservative research group, told InsideClimate News that it supports clean economic growth if it's fueled by the free market. "This notion that the government can double down to make [the clean economy] economically viable ... is not true," said Nick Loris, an analyst at Heritage. Government spending "merely shifts labor and capital from one sector of the economy ... to another sector of the economy," he said.

Loris said that a low-carbon economy is possible if there is natural market demand for it. "I just don't think it can happen as quickly as politicians want it to happen."

Where's most of the clean economy action today?

States, cities and municipalities are driving efforts to build the clean economy, experts agreed.

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