A Teachable Green-Energy Moment

The Gulf oil spill could have a tangible impact on the broader energy debate in America. With recent Pew Research Center data showing more than half of Americans closely following the spill, the time may be right for advocates of green energy to reinvigorate the debate about the way energy is produced in the United States. The question is whether recession-weary Americans are ready for their message.

Movements often need crises to drive change, what communicators call a teachable moment. The Deepwater Horizon spill may be such a crisis for the green-energy movement. In the words of Senator Amy Klobuchar, (D-MN), the spill is a “moment in time” to “galvanize people around a common cause.” If supporters of green energy can crystallize outrage about the spill into something solid and enduring, they may have the traction needed to take larger steps towards sustainable energy.

However, the current political and economic climate may make it difficult to drive change. Chevrolet reportedly is worried that sales of its new high-mileage vehicles may not be as strong as anticipated because the low price of fuel allows consumers to continue old gas guzzling habits. Political commentators have noted that Americans are worn down by the still sputtering economy, tired of seeing rising deficits, and sick of what many view as a dysfunctional political process.

In his June 15 Oval Office address about the Gulf spill, President Obama laid out his vision for fundamental changes in the American energy system: “As we recover from this recession, the transition to clean energy has the potential to grow our economy and create millions of jobs – but only if we accelerate that transition.”

Obama hopes to create a robust new sector of the economy focused on innovating and producing green technology. Studies have shown that a dollar invested in green technology creates a significantly higher number of jobs than a dollar invested in fossil fuels because the green industry is less developed.

Senate considers reform options

The U.S. Senate is considering an energy bill with options ranging from:

  • Targets on emission levels;
  • An increase in the amount of energy generated using alternative sources; or
  • A strict cap-and-trade system that would put a monetary price on the emission of greenhouse gasses.

Obama wasn’t specific about which plan he supports, although he has spoken out in favor of a cap-and-trade system in the past. His lack of specificity and a logjam of legislation in the Senate will make a bill’s passage more difficult. In light of recent struggles to move legislation, Senate Democrats appear to be worried that working towards comprehensive energy reform right now would be an overreach. They may be ready to settle for less comprehensive measures that will nudge the nation towards renewable energy. Still, many federal legislators are hoping to enact a major overhaul of the American energy system in the near- or medium-term future.

Within the Oregon delegation, Senator Jeff Merkley (D-OR) has unveiled his plan to end American dependence on overseas oil by 2030, saying, “American entrepreneurs and ingenuity are undoubtedly capable of breaking our addiction to oil. The question for all of us, policymakers and citizens, is whether we’re going to choose strength or vulnerability.” To further his plan, he has cosponsored a bill to increase the use of electric vehicles that has found bipartisan support. State eager to expand emerging industries.

For Oregonians, this green moment could be welcome if it is sustained. Oregon has stated its desire to be a leader in alternative energy technologies and there are significant developments:

  • An increasing number of Oregon firms specialize in biofuel, wind power and solar energy;
  • Oregon State University has researched technology that would harness the ocean’s waves to create energy and it leads the Oregon Climate Change Research Institute; and
  • The Oregon Institute of Technology powers and heats its Klamath Falls campus through geothermal resources, giving its students firsthand experience with cutting-edge green technology.

With increased funding for green technology research and development, Oregon businesses and universities stand to gain stature in a new green marketplace and create the jobs of the future.

The state has set a goal of generating 25 percent of its electricity through renewable sources by 2020. In 2011, the Oregon Legislature will hear recommendations for the design of a regional carbon cap program scheduled to go into effect in 2012. The options available to Oregon lawmakers, however, depend on what happens at the federal level.

If federal legislation creates a more coherent national energy program, Oregon’s leaders may be able to build upon that foundation rather than chart their own way forward.

The impact of the Gulf spill on the reform effort remains a huge question. Sustainability is a goal of many, but others remain unconvinced of the necessity of placing such a focus on the environment, worrying that it will stunt economic growth.

Still, alternative energy advocates are hoping that a teachable moment may be converted to more funding for technology and tougher laws on carbon emissions that will create great growth in green industries.