Leading with American clean energy: the greatest gift Congress could give

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America can and should be the world leader in renewable energy. America has led every major technological revolution over the last 100 years, from airplanes to the internet, and sold the products from these advances to the world, making us richer and improving our lives.  Why shouldn’t America lead the clean energy revolution as well?

We are already taking the lead in many areas, from new solar technologies in Tennessee to advanced battery companies in Michigan, and are making great strides in others.

For example, Michigan’s Richard Stuedemann, a former auto worker, is employed today thanks in large part to the support the federal tax code has offered to developers of renewable energy. “I get to take all my previously learned skills from the automotive industry,” says Stuedemann, now the quality reliability coordinator at Hemlock Semiconductor Group in Hemlock, Michigan, “and apply them to a completely different set of manufacturing conditions.” Hemlock produces the raw materials used in most solar cells. There are well over 100,000 other people working in the solar energy industry.

But some people are trying to turn clean, renewable energy into something dirty. The fossil fuel industry, other entrenched interest groups and politicians looking to score cheap political points are inaccurately portraying America’s growing renewable energy industry as a fantasy. They’re more interested in political scandal than leveling the playing field for renewables or helping American companies compete around the world. Some from this crowd in Congress want to let the clean energy tax credits expire.

Even as so many American industries hemorrhage jobs in the continuing recession, renewable energy job growth is skyrocketing, thanks in part to federal tax credits. Why would anyone want to snuff out a bright spot in our economy?

In the solar field alone, jobs have more than doubled in the last two years, from 50,000 in 2009 to more than 100,000 today. That’s nothing short of a miracle. A miracle that can be credited, in large part, to tax credit help. Just one of these tax programs alone—the Section 1603 Treasury Grant Program—has created more than 115,000 jobs since it began two years ago. Another, the Renewable Energy Production Tax Credit, will create 17,000 new wind-energy jobs in the next four years, and will prevent the loss of another 37,000 existing jobs, if it is extended until 2016.

These are real jobs providing power that we invented, we own and it’s never going to run out. The last thing we need to do is put up roadblocks now.

And American’s want more clean energy. Americans of all political stripes support federal funding for the expansion of renewable energy. Nine out of 10—including 85 percent of Republicans and 89 percent of independents—say developing renewable energy should be a priority for the President and Congress. Developing and deploying renewable energy helps American innovators and employers continue our country’s long history of world-leading technological innovation. Renewable energy keeps our energy dollars here at home, in the US, instead of sending them overseas. It creates energy security for our nation. And finally, renewable energy tax credits help us limit pollution and create a clean energy future for our children.

Congress’ failure to enact long-term price supports is limiting all of these benefits by making it impossible for renewable energy businesses to plan and grow. “If the Production Tax Credit isn’t extended soon, the uncertainty for our customers will tend to have them hold back,” Kevin Hazel of Siemens Wind Power told the New York Times this week. In fact, previous failures to renew the Production Tax Credit have led to precipitous drops in wind installations. In 2000, for example, one year after Congress failed to renew the PTC, new wind energy installations dropped by a stunning 93 percent. Neither our fragile economy nor our fragile atmosphere can afford these kinds of delays.

For those who argue that government support for renewable energy is a boondoggle, consider this: In the last 60 years, the US fossil fuel industry has received almost $600 billion in federal support, compared with only $74 billion for renewables. (Check out the chart below from the NEI report available at that link, which compares the level of federal support relative to the maturity of various energy technologies. It’s mind-blowing!)

America has a choice.  We can allow fossil fuel companies, entrenched special interests, and their supporters in Congress to block our progress on renewable energy and take our country in a direction Americans don’t want to go.  Or we can move forward with building a future that secures America’s leadership in homegrown renewable energy, drives economic growth and jobs, and provides a cleaner, healthier life for us and our children.

Before Congress leaves town this winter, it owes it to the American people to extend these tax credits, not just for next year but for the next 4 years. Urge your representative to keep our clean energy economy moving forward and support the renewable energy tax credit. Such extensions would be a holiday gift to the nation, creating pollution-free energy and the kinds of jobs that workers like Richard Stuedemann need now.