Celebrating the economics of clean energy

By Jan Wondra
Secretary of Commerce Penny Pritzker traveled to Colorado to address the prospects inherent in clean energy, part of the federal initiative to highlight the opportunities that will grow as the world deals with climate change. For Colorado, a state rich in energy resources, from oil and gas to wind and sun energy, the prospects are brighter than many prefer to admit.

“Cleantech is a huge opportunity for U.S. businesses to address climate change,” said Pritzker. “All these countries have signed the accord, but they don’t have the technology to do it. We have the technology and the innovative spirit to create the products and services which will be needed all over the globe.”

It’s good for any business entity or states for that matter to know what business it is in.  Colorado happens to be in the energy business, not just the oil and gas business. According to the newly released Metro Denver Economic Development Corp industry growth cluster report, the region ranks fourth in the U.S. in fossil fuels and fifth for cleantech employment concentration. Both subclusters posted significant, double-digit growth from 2010-2015. Cleantech was the region’s fastest growing industry in 2015.

“Renewables remain competitive,” said Pritzker. “Last year, the U.S. saw $330 billion in renewable energy sources.  This is sustainable and growing.”

The arm-chair discussion was sponsored by the Colorado Technology Association, Colorado Cleantech Industries Association and the State of Colorado Office of Economic Development and International Trade. It was one of dozens of “State of the Union: Cabinet In Your Community” road tour events, where the president’s cabinet spread out across the country to highlight the opportunities that will grow from the new policies and actions as a result of the Paris climate agreement, signed by 190 nations.

“We went to China on a trade mission, and we featured our technology,” said Pritzker. “The energy opportunity in this is not just for new companies. It’s for companies which have been around for 100 years.”

Pritzker spoke of the necessity of long-term commitment to alternative and clean energy, especially renewable energy sources like sun and wind, which abound in our state.

“With this new agreement, it’s no good to have a short-term commitment, companies need to think in terms of a decade or longer,” she said.

One advantage of renewable energy is that it supports workforce growth.

“With alternative energy like wind, you’re effectively substituting labor cost for energy cost,” said Edward Fenster, chairman of Sunrun, a California solar energy company that is expanding its operations into Colorado. “The jobs are long term and they are good jobs.”

Official policy can help renewable energy sources grow.

“Two key polices support the growth of solar power,” said Fenster. “The investment tax credit will help the industry scale from local operations to metro and state size. This helps because we’ve got a tariff war going on with China over solar panels. Encouraging state-level net metering, which exists in 44 states, helps recoup startup costs and provides a revenue stream.”

Net metering allows residential and commercial customers who generate their own electricity from solar power to feed electricity they do not use back into the grid.

“There is a cautionary tale in Nevada, which ended its net metering program,” said Fenster. “Without this revenue option for businesses and consumers, there has been job loss.”

Four of the Commerce Department’s bureaus maintain significant operations in Colorado. The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office and the International Trade Administration protect intellectual property and connect energy manufacturers to foreign buyers. The National Institute of Standards and Technology supports cleantech research, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration provides world-class climate prediction services to help businesses adapt to the changing environment.

“Almost all the Fortune 500 companies have achieved energy sustainability,” said Pritzker. “The Global Innovation Initiative, a direct result of the Paris accord, will double research and development in renewable energy. We have received private-

sector pledges to match that amount. We’re also adding speed to the patent process and quality review so that patents have better protection.”

“At 1 percent penetration, solar has room to grow,” said Fenster, who has relocated 100 of his 800 employees to Colorado. “Stability is most important to solar energy business investment. All you have to do is look at Nevada, which made the withdrawal of the net-metering option retroactive. It dried up the solar investment market there.”

The year ahead looks bright for renewable energy development.

“Quite frankly, this is a bet on American innovation and ingenuity,” Pritzker said.

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