Love American Style: Clean energy could solve the jobs crisis

"Love, American Style" presented life in simple terms.

Boy meets girl, faces dilemma then figures out a resolution. All in 5 to 10 minutes, with laugh track and hip music.

Apply the philosophy to the U.S. economy and two of the most powerful people in the Republic, and it would go something like this:

Speaker of the House John Boehner: "These excessive regulations are killing us. Corporations can't compete, they're afraid to expand domestically and my mother in law is coming to town."

President Obama: "John ... May I call you John?"

Boehner: "Why not? I'll call you Barry."

Obama: "John, this jobs problem has got to be addressed. Both sides of the aisle are suffering. We can’t solve all our nation’s woes. But we can help."

Boehner: "Gotcha Barry. I'll let you in on a little secret."

The pair walk to background, music cues up. They return, smiling knowingly.

Obama: "You got it John. I'll get Michelle to take your mother in law on a tour of the Pentagon."

Boehner (grinning hugely and looking a little sentimental): "Let's put America to work. Barry, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship."

Reality is a lot more complex

Ah, if only it were so easy. But it's not. The real unemployment rate, including underemployed and those who have stopped looking, appears to be closer to 16 percent, according to John Cassidy of the New Yorker. And there's little hope on the horizon unless something as far-fetched as I have presented actually takes place between the two political factions that run our beautiful country.

Jobs are a big political hot potato right now. We need more. Government policy can help the process, but the private sector creates opportunity.

A straight-talking Chicagoan like Slats Grobnik might say something like, "Try clean energy. We can't keep polluting everything or our kids will suffer. Figure it out. Jobs will follow."

Always bet on green

Clean energy shows huge promise. Study after study has shown it has potential to put hundreds of thousands to work in a variety of tech, research, white collar and blue collar jobs.

Pollution and climate change will begin to assert tremendous pressure on industry, lawmakers and the everyday Joe Sixpack. Nobody wants to foul this great planet. Most -- excluding megalomaniacs and you know who you are -- just want a decent job for a decent rate of pay and a chance to raise healthy, happy families. (Again, I'm not talking about people who want to take over the world, like Pinky and the Brain.)

Give it a few years and I believe even fossil fuel "energy" companies will see the need to accelerate development of cost-competitive clean energy and establish market share. It's there.

My co-worker, veteran reporter Sandy Nax, offered this proposal in his post "Energy Efficiency Could Be the Next Big Thing."A large-scale campaign to cut energy costs would create jobs and save businesses and homeowners billions, or even trillions of dollars -- which could then be reinvested or otherwise directed into the economy," Nax writes.

Back in the Beltway

Obama's proposed American Jobs Act focuses heavily on launching massive infrastructure improvements, hiring teachers and giving tax credits to companies that hire the unemployed. The idea, Obama says, is "to put more people back to work and more money in the pockets of those who are working."

Boehner's response? Tepid.

But he does agree with Obama on one thing. Boehner says in response to Obama's address to a joint session of Congress, "American families and small businesses are hurting, and they are looking for the White House and Congress to seek common ground and work together to help get our economy back on track."

Obama says, "We can stop the political circus and actually do something to help the economy."

Plans, plans everywhere

Republicans have a blueprint for economic growth and job creation – Plan for America’s Job Creators. Its focus: removing government barriers to private-sector job growth.

Boehner says, "The proposals the president outlined ... merit consideration. We hope he gives serious consideration to our ideas as well."

Obama sounds conciliatory, although in his address he repeatedly called for Congress to pass his plan. He did say that every proposal laid out has been supported by Democrats and Republicans in the past.


Maybe members of both parties ought to visit Sesame Street. A heart-to-heart with Big Bird on why pollution is bad might inspire a green jobs focus.

I'm not talking about big feed-in tariffs to make renewable energy competitive. Rather, my thought is that the government free up business to pursue the greatest efficiencies of all and superior energy production from solar, wind, hydro and the rest. Programs like those by the U.S. Department of Energy to provide grants for promising technology ought to be continued, perhaps expanded.

Katie Fehrenbacher of earth2tech.com speculates if the meltdown of Solyndra, which received a government-backed loan of $527 million and is under FBI investigation, could sour the administration on pursuing a clean energy agenda.

"But such a high-profile black eye could make the administration shy away from touting the industry publicly, at least for a while," she writes.

Let's stay off 'The Road'

I hope not. Clean energy is worthy of attention. The alternative is something out of Cormac McCarthy's "The Road," dark skies, no food and predatory humans.

I prefer this passage from Obama's address: "No single individual built America on their own. We built it together. We have been, and always will be, one nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all."

Apple pie, flannel and bald eagles all the way. Just don't call me Shirley.

Falling solar and LED prices generate green jobs

The cost of clean energy is dropping.

Prices for solar panels are declining, and analysts and industry insiders believe solar energy generation will reach cost parity with fossil fuels in the next five years.

Joining solar's trek to affordability are light emitting diodes, better known as LED lights. For instance, San Joaquin Valley clients of an LED street light replacement program got better rates and will be able to replace more inefficient high-pressure sodium fixtures because of better prices offered by suppliers. And, yes, these are lights that meet federal Buy American requirements.

Big deal, and this has come in just the past 12 months or so.

President Obama singled out LEDs during a visit to a Cree Inc. plant in Durham, N.C. on June 13, 2011. Cree employs 5,000 manufacturing the lights and plans to add a new 400,000-square-foot facility and a second production line that will run 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

"At Cree, you’re putting people back to work in a field that has the potential to create an untold number of new jobs and new businesses right here in America – and that’s clean energy," the president said.

The tour was part of an effort to address the nation's economic slide by meeting with the business leaders on the president's Jobs and Competitiveness Council. Obama got input from business leaders and presented ideas to accelerate job growth.

Obama may be getting beat up on the economy right now, but he staged his photo op in a sector of the economy he believes in. The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act under his watch contributed $3.2 billion to the Energy Efficiency and Conservation Block Grant program, mostly for the installation of energy efficiency retrofits, the most cost-effective clean energy investment.

Prices for LED lights remain high, but they're coming down significantly. I purchased a new 9-foot umbrella for my backyard outdoor table from a Clovis hardware store for $90. It was a good deal, but I had no idea it came with a solar panel that powers several configurations of LED lights. They're not overly bright but perfect for evening dinners. My son can't get over how cool they are.

Expect more products like that. At this point the LED replacement bulbs rated for exterior use would cost me $40 apiece. So I still use cheap incandescents. But the prices will drop.

That means it's likely manufacturers like Cree will be ramping up.

Phillips Lighting CEO Zia Eftekhar told Martin LaMonica of cnet.com at the May 2011 LightFair industry conference in Philadelphia that the company expects half of its sales will be LED-related by 2015.

And SolarCity received an investment of $280 million from Google, giving it the chops to cover rooftops with solar panels. The money goes to a fund that enables homeowners to lease solar installations or sign power-purchase agreements for the energy produced on their rooftop solar systems.

From my perspective, Obama's on the right track, but he's still got a way to go as far as others are concerned. Republican candidates for president are tearing him up in the press. Even Robert Reich, former Secretary of Labor under Clinton, wants more.

"The President has to have a bold jobs plan, with specifics," Reich wrote in the Christian Science Monitor. "Why not exempt the first $20,000 of income from payroll taxes for the next year? Why not a new WPA for the long-term unemployed, and a Civilian Conservation Corps for the legions of young jobless Americans?

Bold? Specifics? Heck, clean energy appears to be doing pretty well on its own, with help from assorted rebates and true believers, of course.

The U.S. Solar Institute reported that solar in 2010 employed about 93,500 people and that growth in 2011 is expected to be 26 percent, tacking on another 24,000 jobs. Not huge, but the sector is surpassing steel, grist.org reports.

Expect more in LED lighting, wind and maybe even geothermal. The jury remains out on biofuel.

Photo: President Obama at LED plant flanked by Chuck Swoboda, chairman and CEO of Cree Inc., left, and Matthew Rose, chairman and CEO of Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway, right. Courtesy White House blog.

Heavy hitters add heft to clean energy future

We may not be seeing it in the trenches, but clean energy is generating quite a bit of buzz.

Eric Wesoff of Greentechmedia.com compiled a great post on venture capital activity for March 2011. He called it amazing, saying "In just one month there were more than 40 deals and more than $900 million was invested in every greentech sector from smart grid to solar to biofuels."

At the corporate level, General Electric Co. went big for thin film solar announcing it will spend $600 million on a new factory to make what it promises will be a more efficient product than is now on the market, reported Scott Malone and Matt Daily of Reuters. They said the company projects thin film will generate up to $3 billion by 2015.

And Neal Dikeman, a founding partner of Jane Capital Partners, says (and I'm paraphrasing) "Yeah sure there's a lot of static" but asks in a blog post whether those investors are making money. He proceeds to analyze the deals of BrightSource Energy, manufacturer of concentrated solar; electric automaker Fiskar Automotive; and Solyndra, manufacturer of cylindrical photovoltaic systems.

His conclusion: There's hope.

I believe there is more than that. We've got issues, and they're all seemingly related to fossil fuels. First and foremost, the environment needs a break. Sierra Club Executive Director Michael Brune ties it all to sea turtles and energy. "Whether it's the effect of climate disruption from burning fossil fuels or the increasingly harsh environmental consequences of extracting coal and oil," he says on Huffington Post something's gotta be done.

And there's the issue of national security. The military has brought up the issue repeatedly and is seeking solutions in the development of alternative fuels.

President Obama brought up the subject during a speech at Georgetown University. "Even if we doubled U.S. oil production, we’re still really short," he said.

Obama said the only way to secure the nation's energy supply is by reducing oil dependence. "We’ve got to discover and produce cleaner, renewable sources of energy," he said. "And we’ve got to do it quickly."

The news shakes off some of my natural pessimism, at least momentarily. Maybe I'm full of malarkey, but it's starting to sound a little like Christmas for clean energy. Maybe.

News would be good for the San Joaquin Valley where February 2011 jobless rates hovered near 20 percent for Kern, Fresno, Madera, Merced, Stanislaus, San Joaquin and Tulare counties. Add in the dropout rates, which hover near the same percentage point, and it spells difficulties to come.

Poverty, crime, despair. I prefer the optimism.

Sun, wind & geothermal get federal boost

The U.S. government has unleashed a relative torrent of measures -- but a relatively modest amount of cash -- to accelerate President Obama's clean energy objectives.

And because they involve wind, sun and geothermal, it's almost as if the god of thunder, also known as The Mighty Thor, son of Odin, played a role. The connection, I admit, is a little obscure, but Marvel just ran the first of the ads for its live-action movie on the wielder of the mystic Mjolnir during the Super Bowl.

The genesis of all this hubbub is the President's goal of generating 80 percent of the nation's electricity from clean energy sources by 2035.

The U.S. Department of Energy wants to bring solar prices down to about 6 cents per kilowatt-hour with its "SunShot" initiative. It has a long way to go. Solarbuzz.com reports that the high solar condition industrial industry index is 16.59 cents per kWh.

DOE's plan is to help reduce the cost for utility-scale installations by about 75 percent to about $1 a watt.

I can hear Thor say, "By the bristling beard of Odin," right about now. (Although I'm a closet comic buff, I got the phrase from Jared at blogintomystery.com.)

"America is in a world race to produce cost-effective, quality photovoltaics," said Secretary of Energy Steven Chu, in a statement. "These efforts will boost our economic competitiveness, rebuild our manufacturing industry and help reach the President's goal of doubling our clean energy in the next 25 years."

U.S. outlay: $27 million for "projects to support the development, commercialization, and manufacturing of advanced solar energy technologies."

Offshore wind received the coordinated might of the U.S. Department of Interior and DOE to "support offshore wind energy deployment and several high priority wind energy areas in the mid-Atlantic that will spur rapid, responsible development of this abundant renewable resource."

Wind remains a big departure from the old-style turn-it-on-and-let-it-run practices of years past in electricity production. Wind turbines are getting bigger and have to be in often remote areas where the wind blows, generating sporadic energy. Transmission lines have to be upgraded or new ones built. And back-ups into the existing grid have to be built to accommodate power spikes as more wind power comes on line.

In the Boulder, Colo.-based Pike Research report "Electricity Transmission Infrastructure," out last year, officials wrote: "In order to reap the full benefits of renewable energy and smart grid technologies, the capacity and information-carrying ability of transmission systems must be increased substantially."

No easy task.

So Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar and Energy Secretary Chu announced what they dubbed "major steps forward."

"This initiative will spur the type of innovation that will help us create new jobs, build a clean energy future, and compete and win in the technologies of the 21st century," Salazar said.

He also said the government is working to synchronize research and development initiatives with "more efficient, forward-thinking planning."

U.S. commitment: up to $50.5 million in project funding.

The final naturally occurring energy targeted (at least in this round) is geothermal.

The DOE wants to test the reliability and efficiency of geothermal power generation at oil and gas fields to determine the low-temperature technologies. Work will be done at the Rocky Mountain Oilfield Testing Center near Casper, Wyo. to reduce costs.

DOE's Geothermal Technologies Program is currently paying for 17 projects with a capacity of 3 gigawatts, or enough to power 2.4 million homes by 2020, officials say.

One of the sites, Naval Petroleum Reserve No. 3 near Midwest, Wyo., produces oil and 45,000 barrels of 190-degree water per day from one formation and 28,000 barrels of 210-degree water per day from another. Initially discarded, heat is now extracted from the water and used to operate a 250-kilowatt generator.

Obama said we're going to have to go after and develop cost-efficient ways of extracting energy from all forms of alternative energy. And this pushes the needle forward.

I'd add that we'll have to do it more efficiently and with better regulation. And as my friend in the Texas oil patch says, "Don't forget oil." We will need the stuff and the assistance of the energy companies that produce it to improve our air and national security through domestic ingenuity.

And as for Thor? He'd be all for it. Just be careful of his brother the Evil Loki.

Photo: Naval Petroleum Reserve No. 3 waste water discharge courtesy montaraventures.com.

Political call for clean energy grows louder

President Obama told the nation to get a lot more self-reliant fast, naming clean and alternative energy as a means to get there.

"With more research and incentives, we can break our dependence on oil with biofuels, and become the first country to have a million electric vehicles on the road by 2015," he said in his State of the Union address.

Obama isn't the only one on the international political A List looking for answers in green innovation. In fact, it proved to be a busy week for world leaders going all out for sustainability and global stewardship.

At the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon called for sustainable economic growth that can protect the environment and raise living standards.

“We need revolutionary change, revolutionary action," Ban said in his address. "We need a free market revolution for global sustainability.”

Others at Davos joined the conversation.

Finland President Tarja Halonen called for "a modern trinity" that includes combining growth with social justice and environmental sustainability.

Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyonosia said his government is committed to balancing growth and environmental protection. And Mexican President Felipe Calderón said producing more with less energy "will be good for the planet."

Adding a corporate spin was Mike Duke, Wal-Mart president and CEO, who said, "Business should not see a conflict between doing what is right for business and what is right for the world."

Pretty powerful words. So how do we get there?

Start with energy efficiency. Dubbed "the low-hanging fruit" of the green energy movement, the practice of swapping out less efficient lights, AC units, electrical motors and other products has a near immediate savings for the consumer, building owner or municipal government. Retrofits often pay for themselves in a matter of a few years.

A study led by Julian M. Allwood, University of Cambridge in London director of the Low Carbon Energy University Alliance with Tsinghua and MIT, found that savings of up to 73 percent in global energy use could be achieved by using best available energy efficiency techniques, according to a story by Helen Knight in NewScientist.com.

That's huge. But Allwood's team used Passive House and superinsulation techniques like triple-pane and glazed windows and 12-inch cavity filled walls. They eliminated hot-water tanks and reduced the set temperature of washing machines and dishwashers. And his calculations include limiting cars to 660 pounds.

Fat chance on the last measure. But revamped building codes and savings-minded businesses, entrepreneurs and consumers could transform the standard by which buyers measure homes and commercial buildings. Buildings that cost almost nothing to heat and cool could set a new market standard, forcing retrofits on conventional structures.

Obama didn't stop with energy efficiency, however. He wants a mix of measures to break the back of dependence on foreign-sourced energy. "We’re issuing a challenge," he said in his national address. "We’re telling America’s scientists and engineers that if they assemble teams of the best minds in their fields, and focus on the hardest problems in clean energy, we’ll fund the Apollo projects of our time."

Some of the coolest new research is in turning pond scum into energy. Time magazine recently listed algae biofuel and algae food as two of its top green tech ideas.

The fuel side of algae research has turned into a race as companies work to cut production costs to compete with fossil fuels. Texas company Photon8 Inc. received a $1 million grant from the Texas Emerging Technology Fund to boost its ability to extract fuel from algae.

Photon8 believes its model could produce biodiesel at $1.25 per gallon.

The company uses a closed photobioreactor systems and is shooting for a production rate of 1.5 gallons per square meter annually. "They expect to produce 22,000 gal per 2.5 acre/yr then to best economic units of 5 acres," according to a report by Oilgae.com.

Technology in many arenas is coming along. Obama said it will take of mix of all of it to return the country to the driver's seat in the energy realm.

I'm intrigued. More could change in the next several years than just a million electric vehicles on the road.