The last time the federal government tried to play a large role in stimulating the development of renewable-energy projects, it failed miserably. Instead, states such as California were the ones that ended up jump-starting today's wind, solar, geothermal, and biomass industries. As President-elect Barack Obama and Congress craft a federal stimulus program package designed to add 2.5 million jobs, many of them green, across the country, they should remember some important lessons from the past.
Federal investments in wind power after the energy crisis of 1973 failed to produce a single commercial wind turbine. It took the political leadership of people such as California Gov. Jerry Brown to put in place state incentives to grow the wind industry from the ground up, instead of from the top down.
Now that Mr. Obama has picked his new energy and environment cabinet appointments, there is hope among many that the US can move forward with a clean power agenda. Given the lack of leadership from the White House over the past eight years, it is refreshing for renewable- energy advocates to hear that Obama doesn't buy the argument that what's good for the environment is bad for the economy.
But along the way, Obama must not lose track of the fact that big is not always better. Innovation is an imprecise process, and all levels of government need to play critical roles.
If the US is to make the most of taxpayer investments in a new green-jobs program, Obama would be smart to look West first before launching a national green jobs program. California, Oregon, Washington, Nevada, and Arizona have already done their homework on the best ways to develop some of the world's best renewable-resource basins. And they are poised to make significant strides in following through on that work.
Because the West is uniquely blessed with diverse renewable resources, it makes sense to start here. The most important state for Obama is California, which already has in place the most aggressive state goals to combat global climate change and has been a magnet for venture capital in new emerging renewable-energy technologies.
With some of the world's best sites for solar, geothermal, wind, and biomass resources, California can serve as the testing ground for large-scale deployment of diverse renewable-energy sources, showing other parts of the country how best to balance economic and environmental considerations. By addressing thorny permit issues on federal land in southern California, the state, working with federal wildlife and defense agencies, can help Obama think through how to best transition to a renewable-energy economy. Just like other infrastructure projects, these facilities often get tied up in security concerns on military bases, and get snagged on issues of endangered species and habitat protection.
Obama can ensure that new renewable energy projects get built, by setting clear direction through his Council on Environmental Quality and by streamlining approvals among federal agencies for transmission lines. These transmission lines are the missing link. They bring clean energy from remote deserts and mountain regions to urban centers that need electricity, and without them, the US will simply not be capable of adding the green jobs Obama has promised.
Another critical role for the federal government is to demonstrate real government support for all renewable-technologies programs. To it's credit, Congress did recently authorize a federal tax credit for users of solar technologies over the next eight years, but only secured a one-year extension of a tax incentive for wind. The prime reason Europe and Japan now dominate wind and solar is that their governments offered consistent support. Instead of its current waffling, the US must follow suit.
California and the rest of the West provide the best near-term opportunity for Obama to create thousands of new green jobs. Since renewable-energy sources enjoy a 4-to-1 jobs advantage over equivalent investments in fossil fuels, there is no time to lose.
Rather than prescriptive programs forced upon state and local governments (or throwing dollars around without a clear strategic objective), Obama would be wise to offer steady support for the West Coast innovators already trying to make progress on the ground by building solar, wind, and geothermal projects today.
• Peter Asmus has recently completed a green-jobs report for the Center for Energy Efficiency and Renewable Technologies, which can be found at www.cleanpower.org. His forthcoming book is called "Introduction to Energy in California."