Slats Grobnik

Clean energy jobs: Could Slats Grobnik have figured it out?

When legendary Chicago newspaper columnist Mike Royko wanted to dig deep into a meaty subject, he'd ask Slats Grobnik's opinion.

This usually took place over beers down at the bar.

Slats, fictitious but possibly based on a composite of Royko pals, would give an unvarnished everyman opinion. This week he'd likely say, "Congress? As if they've got a snowball's chance of fixing the economy.

Grobnik's take on the economy

"We need jobs. Mel's wife's car broke down. He's not getting enough business at the diner to pay the mechanic. The mechanic's not ordering parts from Irish Lou. Lou's thinking about closing shop.

"Look at me. I'm still on my first beer, and it's about time to go home. What kind of austerity plan is that?"

Grobnik didn't sugarcoat. He made it real. He gave Royko the essence of an issue.

Straight-up perspective

I don't have a Grobnik, but I do believe the economy could use his straight-up analysis. The economy is so complex these days that just a quick update of Wall Street daily turmoil requires international monetary background.

People like Grobnik care more about finding a way to keep their houses from foreclosure or families fed more than bank bailouts, tax breaks or other government manipulations.

They just want jobs, not daydreams.

The Great Depression had World War II to bail it out. The war was drastic and deadly but hugely effective in getting the American machine firing on all cylinders. Our more recent forays into the Middle East have proved more financially draining than effective.

Mitch Yossarian weighs in

My version of Grobnik is a friend at the health club. (Yep, health club. Royko would shake his head with disgust.) Mitch Yossarian, a fictional Fresno, Calif. developer, mentioned high-speed rail. He just returned from a trip to Europe crossing more than 200 miles of the continent from Brussels in less than an hour.

"In California, it won't pay off right away. But all sorts of things would grow around the stations," Mitch says. "Plus, it creates jobs."

I nod, then mention solar projects. "Certainly," Mitch says.

Give the sun a shot

Solar is about to catch fire, metaphorically, in the San Joaquin Valley. Developers have proposed thousands of acres of photovoltaic panels to capture the energy of the sun. Once started, these projects should spur spin-off activity with each solar dollar multiplying at least four-fold as it circulates.

Angel, the out of work farm hand, could get a job after completing the Proteus Inc. solar training program. He'll be able to keep the car. He'll go out to eat.

Solar, like anything in the renewable energy realm, remains controversial. I just spotted a political cartoon that showed officials ready to unplug a generator that symbolized tax dollars. That generator fueled workers putting up solar panels.

But solar is nearing parity with other forms of electricity. Soon it won't need any subsidy to compete. Nor will wind and a host of other forms of clean or cleaner energy.

Energy efficiency works too

Already the value of energy efficiency has stormed Wall Street, creating an entirely new sector of jobs under the sustainability banner. U.S. Green Building Council's Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, or LEED, program for either new construction or retrofits of buildings is growing and shows no sign of wavering.

Energy efficient buildings just cost way less. The Empire State Building is a shining example. For about $13 million in "energy specific measures," owner Anthony Malkin told Christina Nunez of National Geographic he reaps $4.4 million in annual savings. The measures were part of a larger $550 million upgrade to the New York landmark. The building rates a LEED gold.

Stories like that inspire others.

Energy efficiency by itself won't pull the country out of recession or inspire Grobnik, or my friend Mitch, for that matter. It will put plumbers, electricians and construction types to work, however. And that's the important part.

Headed in the wrong direction

But the economy's going to need more. I came across a story on National Public Radio's All Things Considered during which New York Times columnist Tom Friedman is quoted as saying the United States lost its way the past decade.

"We misread our environment," he tells NPR's Robert Siegel. "We thought the Cold War was a victory and we could put our feet up."

However, lifting the Iron Curtain and normalizing relations with former foes tossed another 2 billion people into the world economy competing at every angle with U.S. ingenuity, says Friedman, pitching his new book, "That Used To Be Us."

Now those competitors are just running faster, he says.

Something from D.C.?

Solutions to the jobs crisis will be bandied about Washington, D.C. for many months. I don't hold out too much hope for government-generated help. Friedman says curbing political gridlock would do wonders. That feels like saying maybe pigs could fly.

President Obama is expected to propose a tax credit to create jobs, but it's likely to get nothing but scorn from across the aisle. Presidential hopeful Mitt Romney, who says he spent more than 25 years in the private sector for street cred, unveils a 160-page jobs plan that even the Wall Street Journal says is "surprisingly timid."

Texas Gov. Rick Perry has a pitch that may resonate with voters but is sorely lacking in substance. In a recent conversation with Sean Hannity he says, "You free the entrepreneur, the small business man and woman, or for that matter the Wall Street investor, from the over-regulation and the over-taxation and Americans will go to work tomorrow."

Sounds good. But I recall what happened the last time we freed Wall Street and got toxic mortgage soup and a global financial meltdown. My house went from a $269,000 2005 sale price to a value of about $120,000 (maybe).

Keep it real & green

I'm putting my faith in green. We've got an army of entrepreneurs motivated not only by making money but making the world a better place. The spiraling costs of pollution will become frighteningly obvious very soon, making everything clean energy more valuable.

And that will create jobs. Sustainable jobs. Different jobs.

I just wonder what they will be. And whether there will be enough to go around.