Newton, Iowa: Renewal Through Renewables

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How appropriate and auspicious it was to have President Obama spend part of his Earth Day in Newton, Iowa this week.

The small town, just east of Des Moines, gives us a concrete glimpse of how investment in the new energy economy can transform the slumbering giant of Midwestern manufacturing and move our nation's economy into a cleaner, more resilient and vibrant future, beginning now.

For generations, Newton was been synonymous with Maytag, one of the great 19th Century manufacturing enterprises that helped transform and modernize the lives of Americans through entrepreneurial spirit, intelligence and determination. For more than a century, Newton was home to the company's corporate headquarters and washing machine manufacturing center. In the wave of corporate consolidations in the late 20th and early 21st  Centuries, Maytag was bought out, and in 2007 the factory closed. A rust belt future loomed for Newton, as it does for much of the formerly vibrant Midwestern manufacturing centers. (See Richard Longworth, Caught in the Middle: America's Heartland and the Age of Globalism, Bloomsbury Press, New York, NY, 2008.)

But a funny thing happened with the realization that building washing machines is not all that different from building wind turbines. Just like that, Newton was revived with the introduction of TPI Composites---a company that saw real opportunities in Newton's available infrastructure and experienced work force. The former Maytag factory was quickly converted and is now producing massive blades for the wind turbines that are popping up around the nation to serve the emerging market in renewable energy in the new Century.

Newton does not stand alone. Look at Toledo where former windshield manufacturers are pumping out solar panels. Or here in Chicago where the closing of the Republic Windows and Doors factory that was an election issue for the blink of an eye has ushered in Serious Materials, a company that will use the same factory to create super-efficient windows and building materials. These are communities that embody the inspired possibility of renewal through renewables and the new clean and efficient energy economy.

Renewable energy and energy efficiency has the potential to address many of this nation's problems at once: bringing jobs back to industrial centers, eliminating dirty power sources that contribute to climate change and pollute our skies, as well as creating new industry that could quickly lift many sectors out of the economic doldrums. The signal sent by the stimulus package and omnibus bills, coupled with an increased sense that we will finally tackle global warming through long overdue legislation suggests critical momentum. Creative, green-leaning businesses may finally be looking forward to the responsive policies they deserve.

We can create new Newtons throughout the region---but only if we get serious quickly... We must build transmission lines to deliver clean power to users. We need government action to remove protectionist barriers hindering wind farms and other clean energy sources, and repeal the unfair and costly subsidies that reward producers of dirty energy. At this moment, the confluence of fresh ideas and new leadership makes it clear American industry is more ready than ever to move into a greener future.


 Newton, Iowa photo by Teecycle Tim via Flickr