Advisers to Obama: Kick-start US with clean energy

Charles Dharapak/AP
President Obama met with his economic recovery advisory board at the White House Wednesday, including former Fed Chairman Paul Volcker (left) and General Electric CEO Jeffrey Immelt (right).

Getting economists and business leaders to agree on anything is the political equivalent of herding cats. But on one thing – how to kick-start the US economy – President Obama has found remarkable consensus.

When his panel of outside economic advisers had its first full meeting at the White House Wednesday, it largely agreed on the solution: clean energy.

"There is an impressive overlap of views about the importance of us getting out front on energy [and] the enormous job-creation potential that exists," Mr. Obama said after the meeting.

A job machine

Clean energy could play a big role in the new economy. Venture-capital investment of $14 billion to $19 billion alone would directly create some 400,000 to 500,000 new jobs worldwide from 2007 to 2010, the Cleantech Group LLC estimated in a report last month. Throw in the more than $200 billion in public-sector incentives expected globally this year and the job-creation potential runs into the millions.

"This is really about an economic discussion of who's going to own probably the biggest and most important industry of the 21st century, which is clean energy," said Jeffrey Immelt, CEO of General Electric and one of the panel members, after the meeting. "There' s broad consensus, not only in this group, but I think within a lot of the industrial complex."

Volatile past

The challenge is that clean energy has proved politically and financially unstable in the past. It shined when oil prices were high. It imploded when they were low. President Carter's alternative-energy investments, passed when energy prices were high, were dismantled by President Reagan and seen to be boondoggles, anyway, when oil prices plunged.

A four-year boom in clean energy peaked last year when the sector attracted $5.9 billion in North American venture capital, more than any other sector, according to Cleantech Group. Then green-energy investments collapsed as the stock market crashed and oil prices dropped once again.

Perhaps this time will be different. Investors are already plowing money back into the sector. Congress is working on greenhouse gas legislation that would cap carbon emissions and favor clean-energy alternatives.

Will that be enough this time to sustain the clean-energy sector during the inevitable ups and downs of energy markets?

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