The question I'm asked every day is whether the New Energy Economy can survive the financial market meltdown.
In a word, the answer is, "Yes."
My conclusion is based on 10 core factors that clearly indicate our move into the early stages of a post-petroleum era. This alternative energy transformation has been slow in coming; but it now has critical mass and is about to gain new momentum in 2009 –regardless of the fallout from Wall Street or the steep decline in oil prices.
First, the man expected to become our next President believes that eco power can drive and lift the United States to a much-needed new level. "A new energy economy," says Democratic nominee Barack Obama, "is going to be my number-one priority when I get into office." Although he lags behind Obama in the polls, Republican nominee John McCain has also stated that it is imperative for the U.S. to become the leader in a green economy. However, Obama's plans have presented more ambition.
Second, despite the tumult in the capital markets, there is a fundamental
understanding that America's reliance on imported oil puts our security – national, economic and environmental – at risk. We are not going to proactively support petro-regimes in the same full-throated way as the next decade unfolds; this has proven to be politically unpalatable. And I believe the willpower is there to make this resolution stick.
Third, 401ks might be shrinking, but the war against global warming has not. Combating climate change has reached a tipping point and is embedded in the collective consciousness. This isn't a fad or passing planetary fancy.
Fourth, we are about to embark on a period of governmental re-regulation and more active involvement in industry; as a result, the public sector will play a strong role in choosing private-sector winners and losers. I see five industries winning between 2010 and 2020: health care, education, infrastructure, alternative energy and automobiles (because of green vehicles).
Fifth, Washington, D.C. doesn't have to dole out huge sums of money to spur the alternative energy sector. Appropriate pricing of fuel-sector costs – in the form of a carbon cap-and-trade or auction system, investment credits or industry incentives – can help move us in the right direction without plunging the nation into fiscal irresponsibility.
Sixth, the big oil companies will become vulnerable with strong Democratic majorities in Congress and President Obama sitting in the White House. The government will try to find a way to restrict the petro-subsidies that have helped fuel massive oil industry profits over the past few years. In fact, if Obama uses a scalpel, rather than a sledgehammer, when it comes to tax policy, it is entirely possible that a windfall tax could be implemented in oil companies; the tax proceeds here would benefit alternative energy and infrastructure projects.
Seventh, after a generation of being presented with a false choice – environmental safety or economic growth – there is a strong consensus that these outcomes depend on each other, and both must be woven together for the good of our country. This is a critical sea change because it removes ideology from the alternative energy equation.
Eighth, America can lead the alternative energy industry around the world; and, in much the same way that Silicon Valley's expertise in information technology gave our country a sense of purpose and productivity in the 1990s, our mastery of sustainable business can restore national pride in the 21st century. Europe, China and India are huge export markets for our clean technology products and services; and, in many sectors of clean technology and alternative energy, they will deploy new advances more rapidly than the United States.
Ninth, we already have the innovative prowess in this country when it comes to alternative energy. I see this every day as entrepreneurs and executives roll out a series of breakthrough technologies designed to wean us off petroleum while cleaning up the environment. The rest of the world also recognizes this; and I am seeing increasing amounts of capital from European investors and multinational companies being invested in our clean technology and alternative energy companies.
And tenth, what other growth options do we really have? The harsh reality is that our leverage over the past 10 to 20 years covered up a lack of growth in our economy. We simply were not as productive as we thought we were. Where will our future growth come from?
Information technology, biotechnology and telecommunications are maturing as gross domestic product (GDP) boosters, while manufacturing is re-tooling for the knowledge workforce. Defense spending will be scrutinized, so even though alternative energy is virtuous and vital, it may ultimately win by economic default.
And clearly, with the markets unraveling, our choices are becoming more limited every day. It's been said over and over again, but it's true: we are facing the greatest financial crisis since the Great Depression. If elected, Barack Obama may not become the next Franklin D. Roosevelt, but his advisers are reading up on the New Deal and how it helped rescue our nation 70 years ago. So, with that in mind, and in the spirit of constructive collaboration, I'd like to propose a New Green Deal to assist our country in creating new jobs and new growth flows.
My plan consists of five building blocks:
1) A cap-and-trade system that would place an economy-wide limit on greenhouse gas emissions, and the reduction of U.S. emissions to 80 percent below 1990 levels by 2050.
2) Federal mandates, regulations and subsidies that would increase ethanol and biofuel production requirements to 60 billion gallons a year by 2030, two thirds higher than the current goal. The country should double fuel economy standards for cars and trucks and insist that all new cars that don't run on electricity run on flex fuel blends of ethanol and gas. In addition, it should require all buildings to be carbon-neutral by 2030.
3) In terms of renewable portfolio standards, the New Green Deal would require utilities to generate at least 25 percent of their power by 2025 from non-carbon sources, while also making it easier to invest in the development of a national smart grid. California's renewable portfolio standard, one of the most ambitious in the country today, requires electric corporations to increase procurement from eligible renewable energy resources by at least 1 percent of their retail sales annually, until they reach 20 percent by 2010. A number of state officials have endorsed a further goal of reaching 33 percent by 2020.
4) The New Green Deal would establish a public-private fund focused on creating clean coal solutions that are safe, scalable and economically feasible.
5) Finally, the plan would require finding ways to appropriately "price" the cost of oil through the tax code at the producer (oil company) level.
It took us 200 years – from the Industrial Revolution to the Internet Revolution -–to wreak havoc on the environment. We won't solve this problem and usher in the Alternative Energy Revolution overnight. But I am confident that we can do this over the next 10 years if the public and private sectors join forces and get to work in the right ways right now. Obviously, there's not a moment to spare.
This opinion piece is from an independent writer and is not connected with Greentech Media News. The views expressed here are those of the author and are not endorsed by Greentech Media. Michael Butler is the chairman and CEO of Cascadia Capital, a Seattle-based investment bank.