Watching Libyan strongman Moammar Ghadafi scramble for his life this week offers some highly relevant lessons for the renewable industry:
1. The Rixos Hotel has a wonderful swim-up bar and free Wi-Fi, but the front-door security can be really spotty.
2. Keep a suitcase full of brightly colored robes and oversized sunglasses packed at all times.
3. Don’t forget your constituents.
That third one might be the most important. Like the other deposed dictators in the region, Gadhafi fell because he forgot -- time and time again -- to placate his subjects. Even in legitimate governments, politicians might bow to lobbyists, but they should live in constant fear of the people they lead.
The renewable industry has surged when voters get angry. History reveals:
--Senator Nelson Aldrich -- “a man with extensive interests in the food industry [who] believed that government had no right to prevent consumers from poisoning themselves,” writes Edmund Morris in Theodore Rex -- strangled Roosevelt’s Pure Food Act in committee. After the publication of Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, Aldrich retreated. The Act passed 63 to 4.
--The original Earth Day drew one million largely middle-class demonstrators into the streets in 1970. George Fallon, a powerful Congressional Representative from Maryland who opposed environmental regulations, shockingly lost a bid for re-election that fall.
In the following months, Nixon -- a raving lefty by contemporary standards but a moderate conservative back then -- proposed the EPA, the Clean Air Act, the Endangered Species Act and Clean Water Act, among other pieces of legislation. Most passed with overwhelming majorities.
--This year, Angela Merkel proposed a plan to phase out nuclear power in Germany after bruising election losses. Her conservative Christian Democrats may try to form a coalition with the Green Party.
--In Japan, current Prime Minister Naoto Kan has proposed increasing renewables to 20 percent of Japan’s power mix by 2020 in the wake of the Fukushima disaster.
--In China, analysts believe that the carbon and coal regulations currently contemplated by the government stem in part from the chronic series of coal riots in the countryside.
--In California last year, voters turned back an initiative, funded by oil and coal companies, to roll back the state’s carbon legislation. Then-governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and former Secretary of State George Shultz helped sway public opinion in the final weeks before the election.
Note also how environmental causes easily cross party lines. Roosevelt, Nixon, Schultz and Schwarzenegger all served as Republicans and the Chinese Communist Party is the pro-business incumbent. George Bush the First created the first cap-and-trade scheme for acid rain.
Gadhafi’s teachable moment comes at an opportune time too. Most of the visceral emotion leading up to the 2012 election exists on the anti-environmental side. Presidential candidate Rick Perry the Cable Guy claims that scientists distort their findings on climate change to win grants. The EPA routinely gets trashed as a job killer.
For a few years, many on the renewables side believed that a charismatic leader could create a broad-based constituency for green technology. We have such a leader. Unfortunately, Bill Clinton has already served two terms, so the industry will have to fight dirty.
The situation, luckily, can likely still be reversed. As the examples above show, voters will go green -- and their leaders will follow like a cow with a ring stuck through its nose -- when a direct, concrete nexus exists between their own lifestyle and new regulations. Some ideas:
--State and National Feed-In Tariffs. Academic economists often dislike feed-in tariffs because they can be inefficient and difficult to set. FITs, however, come with a huge benefit: anyone can become a power producer. Suddenly, consumers have an economic incentive to see the industry grow. If renewables became widespread, farmers and ranchers in conservative states would become some of the most staunch advocates. Clean power would be as tough to eradicate as liquor sales in the '20s.
The U.S. to date has opted for tax credits, which tend to benefit financial institutions more than individuals. Joe the Plumber doesn't trade renewable energy credits. He probably can't participate in tax equity funds, either. And if he found out how they work, he might get even more bent.
--Emphasize Pollution, Not Climate Change. In the U.S., you either believe in climate change or you never will. It’s the new Roe v. Wade. But here’s something we can all agree on: no one wants to live down the street from a coal or natural gas plant.
Pollution is a very real, tangible problem. Earth Day got its start because the Cuyahoga River in Cleveland caught fire and Santa Barbara experienced an oil spill. The air in Los Angeles at the time was about as thick as Progresso Minestrone soup. The environmental recovery in the U.S., Europe and Japan remain unambiguous achievements.
The same problems are returning. The BP oil disaster wiped out the fishing season in the Gulf. In Los Angeles, the air quality improved -- until 2002, venture capitalist Steve Westly recently pointed out. Since then, it has become worse. Approximately 25 percent of the particulate matter over the city comes from Asia, he said. Unless you want to start hosing coal dust off the side of your house, you will want to see renewables expand.
--Domestic Content Standards. Domestic buying requirements, in the abstract, are not a good thing. But we don’t live in an abstract world. U.S. entrepreneurs say it is virtually impossible to break into the Chinese or Indian market without a local partner.
Domestic content regulations would even out the playing field. More importantly, they would convince fence-sitters and skeptics that subsidies and tax credits aren’t disguised corporate giveaways. Regulations can be limited to emerging technologies or could come equipped with phase-out provisions.
Fossil fuel companies get a tremendous amount of their support from pushing the 'Made in the USA' button. Few voters in Kentucky like mountain top removal, but they do like the jobs mining creates. Natural gas ads make it sound patriotic to run your dryer. Why the renewable industry allows the fossil companies to dominate this part of the debate remains a mystery.
--Enlist the Army. The branches of the military all have aggressive green programs. Put an enlisted soldier on TV: "I'm tired of fighting for your car."
--Play the China Card. China will have two gigawatts' worth of solar in the ground by the end of the year. It will double that figure within a year. The nation’s scientists and business execs increasingly dominate the cutting edge of this emerging industry. Didn’t we used to have a strong science curriculum?
--Emphasize construction. Construction jobs aren’t as steady, arguably, as manufacturing jobs, but the U.S. has one heck of a lot of unemployed contractors. The New Deal was one big building project, after all.
--Repeat Yourself. Like I’m doing here. Or like Michele Bachmann does. And like Bill Clinton and Ronald Reagan did. I am not politically conservative, but I’ve admired for decades the hard-bitten relentlessness of some conservative candidates in staying on message. It might take some acting classes, but politicians and business leaders who want to see clean tech take off should sign up.