The next moonshot: Clean energy revolution

The next moonshot: Clean energy revolution

The stunning projection of the Saturn V rocket on the Washington Monument triggered some justified nostalgia for the Apollo program on the 50th anniversary of the moon landing. The Apollo 11 mission was one the greatest collective achievements of American innovation, grit, and determination. (It’s also poignant to remember today that the American rocketry program owes much of its existence to refugee immigrants, but that’s another story)

It’s hard to avoid asking, where is today’s big, bold challenge that we can rally around and that our children and grandchildren can look back upon with pride? I’d argue it’s the clean energy revolution we’ve been engaged in for the last decade or so. With people all over the world experiencing first-hand the signs of a warming world, it’s time to stop being so tentative and embrace the next great challenge — one that can incidentally lead to increased American innovation, boost the middle class —  particularly in rural America — out  of its current economic malaise.

Really starting with bipartisan federal commitments to clean energy innovation in 2005, 2007 and again in 2009, the American innovation machine turned itself to perhaps its most grand goal yet. After all, creating renewable energy is recreating the millions of years of natural process that produced fossil fuels, only doing it immediately and without damaging our environment.

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It’s hard not to wonder at the audacity of this effort, much less how successful we’ve been. Solar would instantly convert the energy of the sun into usable electricity. Wind turbines, modern marvels of engineering, would convert everything from the slightest breeze to the strongest offshore gale to light whole cities. Biofuels would condense to hours and days the process of millions of years of temperature and pressure on ancient plants to produce liquid fuels and products from plants grown by farmers today.

We’d produce batteries powerful, light and cheap enough they could fuel our cars and store the electricity from these new power sources to make it available for when we needed it. Finally, and most importantly, we’d do all of this inexpensively enough that the average American could not only do all the things they were doing using fossil fuels, but could do more for less money.

So, how is it going? Amazingly well, considering the powerful and relentless opposition of the fossil fuel interests that continue to make their fortunes by undermining the prosperity of our children and grandchildren. The cost declines in all the technologies we’ve been supporting with federal policy over the last decade have left us poised to capitalize and deliver clean energy prosperity across the country. Places like Iowa, Kansas, and even oil-rich Texas have invested millions in producing cheap biofuels and wind power. Nevada and Michigan are home to advanced battery manufacturing on a scale that was unimaginable in the U.S. only a decade ago.

Electric vehicles are being produced at revitalized plants in Michigan and Ohio and new plants in California and Tennessee are globally recognized as technological leaders. Stale markets have come to life again, and regions of the country that never would have seemed suitable for clean energy adoption — had government incentives not been in place to encourage development — are becoming national leaders.

But there is still so much to do, and while the world was once looking to us as the innovation leader, many nations have recognized the economic and environmental benefits that the clean energy revolution can offer and have decided to go all-in — whether we decide to lead, follow, or get left in the dust.

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Denmark has invested in record amounts of offshore wind, China has deployed over 400,000 electric buses, and India recently had historic levels of solar energy systems come online.

It’s just not enough that some states are taking bold steps like New York’s laudable move in offshore wind. It’s long past time for us to get it together at the national level and claim the clean energy future we’ve earned, instead of rowing in the wrong direction. For every Congress that we stall and debate the same tired points, leadership and the jobs that follow are moving overseas. There remains a narrow window of opportunity to kick into gear — and dragging our feet, as we’re known to do, is a recipe for disaster. 

Just as we couldn’t listen to the naysayers who said we should be satisfied with reaching orbit or circumnavigating the moon, we know again this time that the journey is nowhere near complete. It’s no longer true that Americans will have to pay more to live in a clean energy future, and it’s increasingly occurring to many of them that the entire world is up against the climate clock. Our mission is clear: replace internal combustion engines, retire fossil fuel plants and increase domestic renewable production as quickly as possible.

Instead of constantly looking for the time to stop and rest on our laurels, this is the time to find the next gear and deliver on the promised environmental and economic gains for every American that these technological advances have and will make available. We no longer have to live with the trade-offs of a fossil-fuel economy, in health, environmental destruction, or in concentration of wealth, any more than we had to remain earthbound as so many people said in the past.

Mike Carr is executive director of New Energy America. He previously served as principal deputy assistant secretary for Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy, and as senior counsel on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee.