CHICAGO -- Former President Bill Clinton invoked the ancient Sumerians, campaign stops at wind-blown Texas border towns, the looming budgetary fiscal cliff and an eclectic assortment of other concepts while proselytizing for more investments in the grid and clean energy, during his speech at the Wind on the Wires gala in Chicago Wednesday night.
Veering between big picture philosophical conclusions and wonkish descents into policy details and proposals, Clinton made the case that renewable energy is symbolic of a struggle central to human nature: “a constant tug of war between the demands of the present and the possibilities of the future.” Between sticking with long-time practices that seem most safe and lucrative in the present, versus forays into new territory that offer more hope for the future.
This dichotomy is exemplified in North Dakota, Clinton noted. According to a study done by the administration of former President George W. Bush, Clinton said, North Dakota alone could theoretically provide for a quarter of the country’s energy needs with wind power if the turbines and interstate transmission lines existed.
“The money and power is there to frack out all the natural gas and oil, but not to build out the grid,” Clinton lamented.
He praised Wind on the Wires and their allies for making great progress in expanding wind power in the Midwest and bringing together environmental and business interests on common ground. But, he said, much remains to be done and a drastic overhaul of the country’s electric grid is necessary to make it happen.
One nation under a grid
Clinton called for a national grid, which would allow centralized decision-making and investment more conducive to renewables and distributed generation. And he proposed funding grid improvements with a national infrastructure bank, which could attract capital in part as a place American companies could invest profits made abroad, rather than paying taxes on that revenue.
He repeated multiple times that extending the wind Production Tax Credit for 10 years or even permanently, is crucial to the continued growth of wind power. Without action, the tax credit will expire at the end of December.
And he urged renewable energy advocates to do a better job framing and pushing their message, including by invoking examples of the escalating impacts of climate change.
He said that groups fighting climate change should have focused more attention on Richard Muller, a University of California physicist and former climate change skeptic once beloved by the Tea Party, who became a climate change believer after doing his own sweeping study on earth surface temperatures. If the situation were reversed and Muller was a renewable energy proponent who had a change of heart, Clinton said, the Koch brothers would have poured millions into making him a household name.
Kate O’Hair, director of the Midcontinental region for EDF Renewable Energy, indicated in remarks before Clinton’s speech that such effective messaging is especially crucial since “skepticism and criticism are at an all-time high.” But, she said, advocates “have the strength and the voice to look beyond these obstacles…overcoming these obstacles will make our industry stronger and more efficient.”
Clinton noted that likely federal budget cuts as a result of the “fiscal cliff” or a deal reached to avoid the cliff could be devastating for renewable energy, including the tax credit and research and development funding. He urged renewable energy advocates to fight hard to raise awareness of the job-creating and economic-stimulus potential of renewable energy. He cited the example of the Empire State Building energy efficiency retrofit, which he said created 275 full-time jobs for two years.
“You all should make a much bigger deal about the contributions you make to the economy,” he said.
All dressed up and nowhere to go
While diving deep into specific ways to accelerate renewable development and grid overhauls, Clinton also described such improvements as part of a larger socioeconomic shift bringing resources and jobs to marginalized rural, poor and Native American communities. He compared the electric grid to internet broadband, and said both should be expanded to offer equitable access to all – in both the metaphorical and the concrete sense – “we need to think about networks.” He implied broadband projects could be undertaken literally in tandem with electric grid expansions.
Native American tribes could “revolutionize” their fortunes if a national grid (and broadband) were in place, Clinton said, “because they have lots of wind and sun.” But on Native American land in the Great Plains and Southwest, power can’t get to market without new transmission.
Clinton lamented the “stranded” wind projects that are “all dressed up and ready to go to the prom" but can’t get construction financing because of lack of grid access.
He reminisced about negotiating the Kyoto Protocol in 1997 only to have the Senate vote 95-0 for the Byrd-Hagel resolution in opposition to joining the international climate treaty. Clinton said he is confident Congress will eventually pass a climate bill, and he urged attendees to “take President Obama’s stated strategy of ‘all of the above’ and fill in the blanks.” You can’t have an "all of the above strategy” without improving the grid, he said.
He offered a cautionary note regarding ancient people seemingly afraid to break with tradition and try new things -- implying our society's decision between continued reliance on fossil fuels or a bold shift to clean energy is potentially cataclysmic.
“Look what happened to civilizations that had their day in the sun and then declined,” he said. “Progress is a long road, a lot of rolling big rocks up steep hills.”