Green energy, jobs could flourish with a little nurturing

The studies are clear.

Clean energy development creates jobs. But so does offshore oil drilling and building mega dairies, and both -- although decidedly smellier in various aspects -- have proven track records.

Now a new report explains how federal, state and local governments on a relatively minimal scale can make clean energy more cost effective and drive its growth. So far, relying solely on the argument that pollution is expensive and clean energy costs less in the long run has failed to drive wholesale change.

The report, "CLEAN Contracts: Making Clean Local Energy Accessible Now," says government should to step up.

"Getting clean energy projects built rapidly on a large scale ... will require clear signals from federal, state, and local energy policy," wrote study authors Richard W. Caperton and Bracken Hendricks with Center for American Progress; John Lauer of Groundswell; and Courtney Hight of the Energy Action Coalition.

The report said the effort must include a "sustained national commitment to overcome the barriers facing the adoption of these advanced technologies in today’s electricity markets."

As if on cue, the U.S. Department of Energy reported this week a couple of massive loan guarantees. Diamond Green Diesel LLC, a proposed joint venture between refiner Valero Energy Corp. and Irving, Texas-based rendering company Darling International Inc., has been offered a $241 million loan guarantee, supporting construction of a 137-million gallon per year renewable diesel facility in Norco, La., about 20 miles west of New Orleans.

And Agua Caliente Solar LLC received a $967 million loan guarantee for construction of a 290-megawatt photovoltaic solar generating facility on 2,400 acres in Arizona's Yuma County.

U.S. Energy Secretary Steven Chu, who made the announcements, put it simply: "Solar projects like this are helping the U.S. to compete globally for the clean energy jobs of today and the future."

Green jobs are a bright spot in an otherwise grim economic forecast for California. Next10, a San Francisco-based nonpartisan think tank, said in its just released study "Many Shades of Green" that since 1995, jobs in California's green economy have expanded by 56 percent while the total economy grew by 18 percent over the same period. The report said that between January 2008 and January 2009 green jobs grew by 3 percent "while the total economy inched forward by less than 1 percent."

Next10 said the state's core green economy accounts for 174,000 jobs in California, with a rate of growth similar to that of software jobs since 2005.

“These jobs are growing in every region across the state, outpacing other vital sectors, and generating business across the supply chain,” said F. Noel Perry, founder of Next 10, in a statement on his web site. He attributed the vibrancy to California’s history of innovation and "forward-looking energy and energy efficiency policies.”

The private sector is largely in the driver's seat. The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 dumped $3.2 billion into the Energy Efficiency and Conservation Block Grant program for energy efficiency retrofits to states, counties and local governments. But the effort, although well meaning, has been burdened by bureaucracy, slowing its potential job creation.

The CLEAN Contracts report says government can best help by clearing regulatory hurdles. "At every turn renewable energy is held back by the absence of national policies to guarantee equal standing with traditional sources of power," it said. "As a result, the growth of clean energy technology has not kept pace with the potential of these exciting technologies to meet our nation’s pressing energy needs."

The report focuses on establishing feed-in tariffs, which allow electricity produced by renewable energy projects to be sold to utilities at a fixed price for an extended period. CLEAN is an acronym for Clean Local Energy Accessible Now. The report calls for institution of CLEAN contracts, or feed-in tariffs, calling them "far and away the most important market creator for renewable energy in the world."

It cites DOE's National Renewable Energy Lab statistics that show 45 percent of wind energy and 75 percent of solar installed before 2008 as being directly linked to such tariffs.

Yet, feed-in tariffs remain controversial despite their success. Many view them as subsidies, which in this economic environment don't get a lot of love. Other industries also benefit from a greater share of entrenched subsidies, but that argument encounters tough political opposition fast.

A path possibly more palatable is one that Steve Forbes, editor in chief of the magazine that bears his name, regularly talks about: less regulation. Easing the rules and/or fast-tracking clean energy projects may work wonders. Providing incentives -- even meastures that cost nothing -- to companies, businesses and even home owners who install energy efficiency retrofits may also help.

Corporate America appears to be buying into the sustainability movement, but the companies going that route cite the economic benefits of saving energy and even public good will. Wal-Mart is an early adopter, gently strong arming its suppliers to do the same.

PepsiCo has its own strategy, hoping to be fossil-fuel free by 2023.

Will Nichols of reported that the company last week updated its progress on its 2-year-old Path to Zero program. He said PepsiCo published an update on its progress, mentioning commitments to unplugging factories from water mains, eliminating waste sent to landfills within 10 years and becoming a fossil fuel free.

The company also plans to make all its product packaging renewable, recyclable or bio-degradable, a process it started last year with Walkers crisps packets, Nichols wrote.

Corporate enthusiasm aside, many companies are locked in legal tangles trying to get solar projects started on federal land in the West, while others work to bring innovations from the laboratory to market. None of the challenges is expected to be simple.

We have our own opinions in the San Joaquin Valley, where my outfit, the San Joaquin Valley Clean Energy Organization, is working with local governments, regional jobs training programs and schools and colleges to position the region as a leader in the emerging green economy. We've got a small Workforce Investment Act grant to assist high schools and colleges train the next generation of workers to either find green jobs or become entrepreneurs who capitalize on the opportunities the green sector provides.

Our valley, which the folks at University of California Merced have dubbed Solar Valley, doesn't have a lot of capital, but the region does have the desire, a very willing work force and more sun than most and wind in the foothills. I'll keep you posted on our progress.