June 13, 2008

Clean-Energy Forum – Seeking a Green Thumbs Up


At Clark College on Thursday, U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell talks to investors, scientists and business leaders about how the government can better encourage industry to develop alternative energy.

With high fuel prices, climbing electricity costs, global warming and increasing dependence on imports of oil and natural gas, something has to change, Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., said Thursday in Vancouver.

Washington state should be a world leader in new energy technologies, but federal policies keep getting in the way of innovation here and across the U.S., Cantwell said.

So she summoned a dozen investors, scientists and business leaders who all have a stake in clean energy to Clark College for a forum on what the government can do to nurture their industries.

Among their priorities:

The federal government keeps passing tax breaks to encourage wind and solar power, then letting them lapse, then renewing them, which creates an unstable environment for businesses, said Chad Sachs, senior vice president at San Francisco-based MMA Renewable Ventures, which finances renewable energy projects. "There has to be consistency of federal policy."

Though alternative energies seem costly up front, fossil fuel- based energy businesses don't have to pay for the costs the y impose on society, said Graham Evans, executive director of the Washington Clean Technology Alliance, a Seattle-based business association. Big business should have to pay for those costs through taxes or another regulatory system, Evans said.

The U.S. spends billions of dollars on oil subsidies, and only a tenth as much to fund key clean technology programs, said Craig Lewis, vice president of government relations at GreenVolts Corp., a San Francisco solar energy company. The country needs to rethink its priorities, he said.

Laws about carbon emissions vary state by state, which is inefficient and confusing for business, said K.C. Golden, policy director at Olympia-based nonprofit Climate Solutions. "We really are going to need a strong federal policy."

Again and again, Cantwell heard the clamor for federal leadership on energy issues - as a catalyst, a financier, a regulator and a source of inspiration.

"What the government did for the industrial revolution, for software, for the development of the Internet, for the biotech revolution, we're now poised to duplicate for clean technologies," said David Rosenberg, chief executive officer of Hycrete Inc., a New Jersey business that makes environmentally friendly building materials. But first it must act, Rosenberg said.

Cantwell applauded many of the ideas put forth, but also cautioned that it will take time, effort and negotiations before the Senate will pass sweeping reforms.

"It might take us to the next election to get enough seats to change policy, because some people in office don't understand the enormous challenges we face," she said.

"Many people argue that you can't have an effective carbon emissions policy because it will wreck the economy," Cantwell said. "But with $4-a-gallon gas, the direct cost of carbon, in and of itself, is going to wreck the economy."

And that's why leaders in Washington should buck the trend of taking years to accomplish change, said Mike Davis, associate director of the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory's Energy Science and Technology Directorate, based in Richland.

"Our energy infrastructure has evolved for 100-plus years," Davis said. "Don't accept that we have to take a long time to make changes."

Did you know?

In 2007, private equity invested $6.3 billion in clean energy in the U.S., up 21 percent from the previous year, according to Sen. Maria Cantwell's office.

Washington state imports $1.5 billion worth of petroleum each month, about $100 million of that comes to Clark County, according to nonprofit Climate Solutions of Olympia.

The state spends less than $1 million a month to develop renewable energy, according to Climate Solutions.

Courtney Sherwood covers high-tech businesses and energy. Reach her at 360-735-4553 or

[email protected]

Originally published by COURTNEY SHERWOOD Columbian staff writer.

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