Obama inspires Elkhart. But can it build solar RV?

Jim Young/Reuters
Addressing a town-hall meeting in Elkhart, Ind., on Feb. 9, President Obama got some of his biggest applause when he talked about green energy.

President Obama came to Elkhart, Ind., to highlight the bad economy and push his stimulus package. But some of the biggest applause at his town-hall meeting came when he talked about green energy.

It's a sign that, even in the RV-manufacturing capital of the world, "green" is in.

"I want to make sure that we're investing some money every year in the development of new energy technologies that will drive those costs down over the long term," Mr. Obama told the assembled residents at Concord High School. "The country that figures out how to make cheaper energy that's also clean – that country is going to win the economic competition of the future. And I want that to be the United States of America."

There was a roar of applause. Never mind that half the town seems to be tied to building America's biggest noncommercial vehicles. Or that the average RV has the carbon footprint of a Third World nation.

Primed for change

No, the people of Elkhart sounded like they were ready for change. Now, can they go solar?

So far, the prospects don't look promising.

"We're running dream companies right now that are employing American people on our soil and keeping jobs here," Bill Keith, president of an solar attic-fan company in St. John, Ind., told the president at the Elkhart gathering. But "there's no real incentive for us to do what we're doing. We're doing it out of passion right now."

Indiana might not become the next Silicon Valley of solar panels. Even many of the companies that build solar systems to run RV appliances are located elsewhere.

Wind and hope

But the state may benefit from an emerging corridor of wind-energy manufacturers that stretches from Texas to Minnesota. (Click here for a story and a map.) Last year alone, wind-energy manufacturers built or expanded some 55 facilities in the corridor. In Indiana, there are nine facilities that have transitioned at least some of their business from other manufacturing to wind energy, according to the American Wind Energy Association.

Wind Alley, if it takes off, could create a center of growth and innovation and jobs for an economy looking to move in a new direction.

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