By Leo Gerard, president of the United Steelworkers, and Michael Peck of Gamesa
Once, when asked why he was so good, hockey icon Wayne Gretzky replied, "I skate to where the puck is going to be, not where it has been."
The world is skating toward multiple clean sources of energy in a carbon-free future. The question is whether the United States has the political will to become a leader in the largest industry of this century, or whether we are willing to accept the economic and climate consequences of failing to act.
America can create a green, re-industrialized economy that manufactures commodities of international value. Our factories can provide good jobs and family-supporting wages. But to do this, we will have to focus our attention and our treasure on Main Street, not Wall Street.
The United States can compete on a basis of highest quality through innovation, where cost, while always important, becomes secondary to quality. We will never be able to compete purely on a basis of lowest cost, nor should we want to because lowest cost usually means substandard safety, health care, environmental and compensation conditions for our workers.
If we don't invest in our homegrown green industries, others will.
For example, a Chinese wind-turbine company with massive financing help from Beijing recently struck a deal in Texas to be the exclusive supplier to one of the largest wind-farm developments in the United States. Most of the thousands of jobs for this project will be in China, benefiting that country's export machine rather than our own.
America needs green investments – without being re-colonialized in the process.
We must do better. Rather than standing by and watching as the global recession cripples the U.S. wind industry, we can ask our legislators to pass strong climate and clean energy policies such as a competitive, long-term, national Renewable Energy Standard.
Even absent strong federal clean energy policies, the number of clean energy jobs in the United States has grown nearly two and a half times faster than the rate of overall jobs over the last decade, according to a recent analysis by the Pew Charitable Trusts. Imagine what we could do if we got the equation right.
A study released in late October, conducted by the University of California in collaboration with the University of Illinois and Yale University, found that strong climate and clean energy policies could create up to 1.9 million jobs nationally. This report underlines that comprehensive national energy policies would increase consumer income and boost the U.S. gross domestic product.
The United Steelworkers International union is optimistic about the potential for renewable energy industries to spur job growth in the metal and steel industries that were once the heart and soul of towns and cities across the industrial Midwest. Metal components make up nearly 90 percent of the weight and over one-third of the value of a modern wind turbine.
America is at a tipping point: we can either become a first-tier clean energy producer in the global green economy, or we can be a consumer of other countries' manufactured goods. We can lead or follow, produce or just assemble, innovate or be left behind and left out. It's our choice.
Leo Gerard is president of the United Steelworkers. Michael Peck is director of external relations for Gamesa USA, a wind energy company represented by the United Steelworkers union.