Occupy Wall Street

Could "Occupy Clean Energy" Be Next?

I was a cop reporter in Palm Springs for a period in the mid-1980s. The community was a spring break mecca for college students and, as luck would have it, I decided one spring day to make a last run through town.

It was about 4 p.m. when I came upon a park in north Palm Springs filled with students. They were just milling around, but electricity filled the air. I just knew something was about to happen.

I called my boss at the newspaper and told him I was going to hang out for awhile. "Something is about to pop," I said.

Boy, did it. The riot started when a motorcyclist with a case of beer strapped on the back rode past the park. The beer was hijacked and the rumble was on. Hundreds of students trampled through downtown as cops in riot gear and firing tear gas tried to stop them. The crowd finally dispersed several hours later, and I had the lead story the next day.

I mention this because I'm feeling the same tingle that I did that April day so many years ago. I sense that something big is about to pop with clean energy and energy efficiency. (And I wouldn't be surprised if young people are involved; they are demanding progress on the energy front.)

Out-of-touch Legislators may not realize yet, but the undercurrent is strong. Big Business, the military, local governments, schools and average citizens are waking up and recognizing that creating cleaner and cheaper energy is good for the environment, and is smart economically.

We've written about Walmart and other businesses discovering green is good - especially when it comes to energy efficiency. A relatively minor investment can yield huge results when it comes to conserving energy at houses, businesses, government facilities and hotels.

Clean-energy followers are getting restless. We see with Occupy Wall Street what can happen when the restless are moved to action. Will Occupy Clean Energy be next?

Photo of Palm Springs Aerial Tramway

Occupy Wall Street rouses reform, why not clean energy?

The Occupy Wall Street protest has made an impression.

A Time poll says it rates a better impression than the tea party and that 54 percent of respondents "harbor a positive view of the burgeoning protest movement."

Ragtag but well-behaved protesters tapped into a surging vein of nationwide resentment. The economy has not only tanked, but the prospects appear so grim that nobody's talking seriously about a rebound.

Economic disaster strikes

Housing prices have cratered. Foreclosures are increasing. Banks need to start charging user fees for debit cards because they aren't making loans. Businesses aren't hiring. And technology is teaming with the downturn to hasten the demise of entire industries.

Fancy new SUVs purchased on raided pre-crash home equity are now starting to lose their luster and break down on roadsides. Their owners defer maintenance because they have either lost their homes, jobs or just their optimism in the future.

Check out the next 2004 Escalade alongside you on the 405 to see what I mean.

Jobs just aren't there

Andy Kroll of Mother Jones puts it aptly in a TomDispatch.com post. "It’s as if Hurricane Irene had swept through the American economy. Consider this statistic: between 1999 and 2009, the net jobs gain in the American workforce was zero. In the six previous decades, the number of jobs added rose by at least 20 percent per decade."

That's left a lot of older folks without jobs and younger ones with no prospects. College graduates fighting over fast-food jobs is an indicator that things are not like they once were.

Matt Taibbi, Rolling Stone journalist and financial muckraker, has been chronicling the monetary misdealings of stock traders, bankers and Wall Street gamblers, being one of the few to lay bare the practices that put the entire globe on the brink of insolvency.

Financial elite get Bronx cheer

Taibbi applauds the occupy crowd. "The protests building at Liberty Square and spreading over Lower Manhattan are a great thing, the logical answer to the Tea Party and a long-overdue middle finger to the financial elite," he says in a post on RollingStone.com.

He says protesters' strategy of no strategy works for now, but he suggests that occupiers eventually offer solutions. In his post he offered five potential Wall Street fixes: 1. Break up the "Too Big to Fail" monopolies. 2. Levy a tax of 0.1 percent on all trades of stocks and bonds and derivatives to pay taxpayers back for the bailouts. 3. Allow no public money for private lobbying. 4. Tax hedge-fund gamblers. 5. And enact new laws that prevent Wall Street executives from getting bonuses upfront for deals that might blow up later.

Maybe such reforms would put a dent in the nation's financial gambling sector. But the desire to extract value by way of financial tools is phenomenally powerful, and the mechanisms used are so complex that even regulators have a hard time tracing all but the most careless.

Many who have pitched tents and have decided their best investment lies in exposing bad practices already know this and that likely stiffens their resolve.

New generation post Woodstock

This battle is nothing new. The players are just younger than they have been since the last round of U.S. protests that spawned sayings like "Make War No More" and "Tune In, Turn On and Drop Out." And this time they're listening to Jay Z, Lady Gaga and Vampire Weekend rather than the Dead.

George Carlin, one of the voices of that past era, spells out how the financial game is played in one of his last concerts. A piece on Huffington Post provides a prophetic excerpt in which he says, "You know something? [Wall Street] will get it. They'll get it all from you sooner or later, 'cause they own this ... place. It's a big club, and you ain't in it. You and I are not in the big club. ... The table is tilted, folks. The game is rigged. And nobody seems to notice, nobody seems to care. Good, honest hard working people ... continue to elect these rich ... who don't give a ... about them."

Carlin didn't mince words. But he also had a wonderful optimistic streak. His comedy records contain volumes of his ability to find light-hearted ways of looking at calamity and difficult topics.

Give clean energy a chance

In that spirit, I'll offer another solution, not so much aimed at Wall Street but the economy. I'd like the occupiers of Wall Street to venture into the realm of clean energy with the zeal of the Solar Decathlon contestants. The University of Maryland team won the 2011 challenge for the best solar-powered energy efficient home.

Cheap, sustainable energy could drive a massive economic resurgence and spawn many new industries. Already, solar power is nearing fossil-fuel parity, and Kees van der Leun of Netherlands consultant Ecofys went so far as to predict in a post on Grist.com that "PV is set to go beyond grid parity and become the cheapest way to generate electricity."

So, hey, let the sun shine and have fun on Wall Street.