Innovation in defense, energy has economic, security benefits

In the West, water law is based on the concept of prior appropriation, commonly referred to as “first in time, first in line.” It means that if you’re the first to put water to beneficial use, you will remain the first in line to reap the benefits.

In Colorado, we’ve taken this concept to heart in business and economics as well as water rights. Our support for innovation in clean energy, space and defense technologies means Colorado is one of the most vibrant places to do business in these fields, and we’ve continued to reap the benefits during the past decades. We’re producing domestic sources of cleaner energy in the form of wind, solar and natural gas. We’re also producing the technology that helps keep our nation safe — from satellites, space instruments and launch vehicles, to command and control software, sensors and navigation equipment.

While there is no question that Coloradans are hurting as a result of the global recession, our state’s economy is stronger than many others, and our unemployment rate is below the national average. As Congress considers two challenges facing our country — economic and national security — Colorado’s diversity and support for innovation are an example to which we should look.

Two forward-thinking moves have helped Colorado get to this point. 

First, we realized early on that clean energy development was a key industry for the future. Most prominently, the state established a renewable electricity standard in 2004 that has since become one of the most ambitious in the country, with a requirement that we reach a 30 percent reliance on renewables by 2020. Increasingly, we’re becoming energy independent, and we’re creating opportunity for Coloradans. In the last six years, Colorado has created 20,000 new clean-energy jobs, giving us the fourth-highest concentration of renewable energy and energy-research jobs in America.  

Second, Colorado has welcomed aerospace, defense and related industries through support for education and the military, helping us become one of the largest, most diverse aerospace and defense economies in the nation. As the home to four key military commands, three space-related Air Force bases, great universities and laboratories, leading aerospace giants and smaller firms changing the way we access space, the next generation of scientists and engineers are getting unparalleled hands-on experience working with scientists and military experts who are pushing the bounds of discovery. It is producing real economic benefits: The average aerospace sector wage in Colorado is $109,616, higher than any other state and 135 percent of the average private sector wage. And Colorado has utilized the synergies offered by Colorado’s military bases, skilled workforce and educational institutions to its advantage, attracting 166,000 private-sector aerospace and defense workers, suppliers and related businesses.

Earlier this year, I convened an energy summit involving business leaders, scientists, energy and environment experts and Colorado officials, as well as U.S. Secretary of Energy Stephen Chu. The purpose was to examine ways to keep Colorado at the forefront of the clean-energy revolution, create jobs and unleash innovation. Since then, the Colorado Association for Manufacturing and Technology has picked up the baton and has run with it. 

Partnering with NASA, the State of Colorado, the U.S. Department of Energy and several Colorado universities, CAMT has initiated a pilot program to spur innovation and speed technology transfer and commercialization of clean energy and aerospace technologies.  Through programs designed to improve the connections between research and commercialization and the creation of a technology acceleration park where companies will collaborate in close proximity to each other, this initiative will help keep Colorado on the cutting edge of two fields essential to many national priorities. It might not pay dividends tomorrow or next month, but if, as is my goal, Colorado remains a clean energy and aerospace leader 10 years from now, some of the credit will surely go to investments like this.

Allocating a scare resource such as water in the arid West has taught Colorado the benefits of being first in time and first in line. We have applied those lessons with vigor to clean energy and aerospace.  Even though we are in the toughest economic conditions of our lifetimes, the United States should likewise recommit itself to innovation, which has accounted for as much as three-quarters of our economic growth since the middle of the last century and will be at the heart of our economic success in the 21st century. If we aren’t committed to being first in time, we’ll surely forfeit our position at the front of the line.

Sen. Udall is a member of the Armed Services Committee and the Energy and Natural Resources Committee