Rep. Stearns - Don't Throw in the Towel on Our Clean Energy Economy!

When did it become acceptable for our leaders in Washington to say that U.S. companies should just throw in the towel, that America shouldn’t compete in the global economy and that we should just cede leadership to other nations and competitors? 

Unfortunately, there’s been a steady drumbeat of that kind of talk from some Republican leaders in our nation’s capital claiming that America just can’t compete in clean energy industries with countries like China. The leading offender making this argument is Rep. Cliff Stearns (R-FL), who’s heading up the House Republicans’ investigations into Solyndra.

Last month, Rep. Stearns made the outrageous claim that, “We can’t compete with China to make solar panels and wind turbines.”   Earlier this week, at a tour of Solar Trek, an Ocala, FL based solar equipment distributor and installer, Stearns conveyed further doubts about domestic solar panels, saying, “I still question solar panels.”  (He said this while allowing has there could be other solar sectors in which the U.S. could play.)   

Given Stearns’ role in the Congress, his notions could become self-fulfilling.  If Congress cuts the rug out from under the solar industry, then, yes, it may have trouble competing in an international arena where other countries are working to develop a solar industry. 

But Stearns and many of his colleagues are not exactly consistent when it comes to talking about government support for energy technologies.  Stearns, for instance, has been taking every opportunity to prop up government support for oil companies.  In the midst of huge profits announced by the oil industry last week, Stearns stated in regard to oil company subsidies that, “When somebody is successful, then you give them the subsidies and the tax credit.”

This turns both theory and practice on their heads.  Subsidies and other inducements can be helpful in getting industries off the ground or getting them through rough patches.  They’re not designed to benefit mature, healthy industries.  Indeed, some of the oil subsidies date back to when that industry was a struggling start-up.  Why those who make a fetish of the market would be arguing that subsidies should be a government reward for those already successful is a mystery, as well as a new take on economics and political science.  Why would taxpayers need or want to give their money to companies that are raking in profits hand over fist?

This idea of government helping new industries gain ground is hardly new and it has a record of success and bipartisan support; it’s the idea that we should just concede defeat that is the historical outlier.

What if we had ceded the semiconductor industry to Japan in the mid-1980s? We would have lost out on a $225 billion industry (as of 2009) and been dependent on imported semiconductors and microchips for a range of applications.  Luckily, the federal government formed a public-private partnership with domestic semiconductor manufacturers called Sematech to rebuild our nation’s manufacturing of semiconductor technologies and regain our foothold of the industry.

Or, for a more recent example, what if we had let U.S. car manufacturers close their doors, instead of helping them to retool and compete with other countries in developing more fuel-efficient, hybrid, and electric vehicles that provide better performance, critical savings for consumers, and reduce pollution?  Because of government support for advanced vehicles, that includes both R&D funding and the kinds of programs that Stearns deplores, like incentives and loan guarantees and efficiency standards, Michigan is now on the path to becoming a leader in developing and manufacturing innovative clean vehicle technologies.

From 2002 to 2010, Michigan led the nation in U.S. patents for clean energy due to investment in more advanced and efficient vehicles.  U.S. patents awarded nationally for hybrid and electric vehicle technologies jumped 60 percent from 2009-2010.  Our ability to compete and innovate in the development of clean cars is translating into jobs for hardworking Americans.  There are 150,000 workers employed across the country making components that improve vehicle efficiency and cut pollution and over 300 auto supplier companies across 43 states making components for cleaner cars and trucks, according to a recent report by NRDC, the United Auto Workers, and the National Wildlife Federation.

But Stearns has problems with more than just theory and history; his attacks on the solar industry are at odds with the facts.  In reality, America’s clean energy economy is beginning to succeed and grow fast.  There are over 100,000 workers employed in the solar industry and the solar supply chain now features over 5,000 companies.  The U.S. clean economy as a whole now employs 2.7 million workers across the nation, more than the fossil fuel industry, and outperformed the nation in job growth during the recession.  Over 100,000 of these workers are in Florida.

Looking closer to home in Stearns’ own district and state, there are countless examples of companies that are working to make our country the leader in clean energy technologies, putting America’s ingenuity and innovation to work.  Stearns himself has endorsed government support for some of these companies and technologies.  Consider these facts:

  • Florida’s solar photovoltaic industry was the fastest growing job creating sector in Florida’s clean economy from 2003 to 2010.  Stearns recently visited a solar distributor and installer, Solar Trek, in Ocala, FL to learn more about the solar industry.  As Bill Gallagher, president of the Florida Solar Energy Industries Association, told Stearns in his recent visit to Solar Trek, “We need the federal government to stand behind solar.”
  • Saft America, a company that’s headquartered in Jacksonville, FL and makes lithium-ion battery cells for military hybrid vehicles and solar and wind energy storage, was endorsed by Rep. Stearns.  The facility received a $95.5 million grant from the Department of Energy (DOE) and is expected to employ about 300 people when it reaches full-operating capacity.
  • Stearns also joined other lawmakers in backing a loan guarantee for INEOS New Planet BioEnergy, an advanced biofuel refinery plant in central Florida which received a $50 million grant from DOE and a $75 million loan guarantee from the Department of Agriculture.  The company will provide 380 direct and indirect jobs, including 200 construction jobs, in the next year and 50 full-time jobs when the facility is operational.
  • Environmental Entrepreneurs, E2, has found other recent examples of Florida-based companies that are working to build our competitive edge in clean energy and create jobs in the state.  Just in the past month, American Energy Solutions, a wind energy component manufacturer in Marin County, FL, announced plans to hire up to 600 workers over the next years; Algenol Biofuels in Lee County, FL recently broke ground on a pilot-scale algae biofuel refinery that plans to hire 100 workers by the end of this year; and Highlands EnviroFuels LLC is in the process of building a sugar cane- based ethanol plant in Highlands County, FL, providing 60 direct jobs and 900 indirect jobs to the local community.

Our nation has led technological revolution after revolution over the course of our history, and we can and should summon our collective resources and innovative spirit to do the same with clean energy.  We can lead the pack in developing and manufacturing innovative clean energy technologies and bringing them to market.  We can out-innovate and out-perform our competitors in developing clean, homegrown renewable energy that will never run out, and create economic prosperity and jobs for years to come. Our companies and workers have the know-how and ingenuity to rise to this challenge. 

Now it’s time for Rep. Stearns and other leaders to stop giving up on our growing clean energy economy.  Defeatism is not leadership.