Washington D.C.--General Wesley Clark today called upon the solar and wind developers of the United States to hire consultants from K Street.
Speaking at the Creating Climate Wealth Summit, Clark -- who currently serves as chairman of the strategic advisory firm Rodman and Renshaw --said that solar, wind and the entire renewable industry suffers from a lack of visibility and influence in Washington and state capitals, particularly compared to the fossil fuel gang.
"How can you articulate the right message? Ultimately that is the principal challenge we face," he said. "Unlike the dot-coms, we're pushing against old established systems. You're pushing against Big Coal. You're pushing against Big Oil. You're pushing against Big Utility."
He also thundered against investment banks and Wall Street for not being particularly willing to extend financing for wind and solar power plants. At times, it was sort of like listening to a folksy Che Guevara in a suit -- "Rise up! You have nothing to lose but your retainer fees!"
Clark backed up his comments with some interesting examples of how Wall Street and the bureaucrats of the world have failed in the industry. He relayed how he asked a friend, a partner at a major investment bank, to fund approximately 1,000 solar projects in the U.S. The return would be ten percent after taxes.
"'It's not good enough," the banker said, Clark recalled. "'We're looking abroad.'"
A wind developer he knows has 450 megawatts worth of projects it wants to build in the U.S. The developer has 110 megawatts worth of power purchase agreements. But, because the projects can't get financing, the facilities can't get built. In all, 10 gigawatts of wind projects are currently being held up in the U.S. because of how the turbines could interfere with radar. Others have noted how the solar industry has sometimes floundered in the halls of power in the U.S., as well. The federal investment tax credit, after all, was stalled in Washington until after the government agreed to a much more massive bailout under the TARP program for Wall Street.
The picture has improved a bit. SunPower today cut the ribbon on a manufacturing facility in Milpitas, while Suntech, the Chinese company, will build a panel facility in Arizona. Danny Kennedy, founder of Sungevity, has also noted that 70 percent of solar jobs revolve around installation and distribution. Still, the U.S. is not benefiting as much as it could, according to Clark.
"We need that power. We need it to grow unless you assume we will ship all of our manufacturing to China," he said. "We import at least 12 million barrels a day of petroleum. That is $300 to $400 billion dollars that is subtracted from the U.S. economy each year...It is funding Swiss chalets. It is doing a lot of things. It is not improving education in this country. It is not improving welfare in this country."
No afternoon with the Hero of Herzegovina would be complete, of course, without a rousing defense of corn ethanol. Clark worked with Poet, the ethanol producer, to form Growth Energy to advocate for ethanol. Corn ethanol was a cute, quaint industry, until volumes hit a billion gallons a year and continued to grow. After that, oil refiners started a disinformation campaign, including the now-famous "food vs. fuel" debate.
The corn price hike in 2008 came as a result of wheat failures elsewhere (a point made, but often overlooked, by several scientists at the time). Corn now costs $3.50 a bushel and each bushel is good for three gallons. Corn costs 70 cents more a gallon to produce that regular gas, and currently is making something of a comeback, GTM Research analyst Joshua Kagan has noted.
The ethanol industry now generates $66 billion in revenue a year and supports 500,000 jobs. If the U.S. moved to E15 fuel, in which 15 percent of each gallon of gas would actually be ethanol, it would add 136,000 jobs and 500,000 construction jobs.
"Corn ethanol is about 40 percent as carbon-intensive as gasoline," he said, adding that improved engines will drop that figure to 20 percent.
"Ethanol has political power. What does the renewable industry have in political power?" he asked.