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Remarks at the Clean Energy Economy Forum

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Thursday, October 22, 2009

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Secretary of Commerce Gary Locke
Remarks at the Clean Energy Economy Forum
Washington, D.C.

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Welcome everyone to this gathering to discuss how America can start building a green economy.

It's great to be joined by so many colleagues from the administration, like Tina Tchen, our White House Director of Public Engagement and Dr. Jane Lubchenco, the administrator at Commerce's National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

And Secretary Chu.

We have spent a lot of time together lately, and just this summer, we were in China to pursue clean energy opportunities there. It was an eye-opening experience, and I can tell you—the Chinese are making some major advances in this area that we had better pay attention to.

And it’s great to see so many clean energy business leaders getting engaged in Washington and providing leadership for comprehensive energy reform—which is critical to maintaining American competitiveness.

I know we've all heard the criticisms about the cost of taking aggressive action on the climate and energy front.

But from my perspective as Commerce Secretary, the cost of not acting is a whole lot higher.

In the next few years, some entrepreneur or some innovator is going to revolutionize:

  • A new light-weight battery for automobiles;
  • A safe and affordable way to capture carbon from coal plants;
  • Or a cheap and effective way to store power from the wind and sun.

These discoveries will fundamentally change the way the world uses energy. And President Obama wants to make sure the brains behind these innovations live, work and create jobs in America.

So much of the energy technology being used around the world has its roots in the United States.

Federally-funded American research labs have actually accounted for many of the breakthroughs in photovoltaic solar cells.

But it was Japan that took the lead in creating solar panels for homes and businesses. And now China has assumed dominance in the market.

There is simply no reason why this should have happened. We have all the smarts and all the resources we need to take the lead in clean energy.

What we need is the willpower to act.

Now, I understand that there is a lot of skepticism whenever there is talk about the promise of clean energy.

People say, “Well, we've been hearing about this for 35 years and nothing really ever changes.”

In the past few decades, any time there was a sustained spike in oil prices, people like the ones in this room funneled cash into things like wind farms and solar factories, only to see those investments wiped out once oil prices declined.

But this time has to be different—for the sake of our environment and our economy.

For a good hundred years or so, American businesses have enjoyed the fastest growth we have ever seen in the history of humankind.

You can point to countless innovations that helped build today's modern 21st century economy—from the automobile, telephones, cell phones and TV to the advent of space exploration and the Internet.

But through all that change, there were two constants that underpinned our growth.

Fossil fuels were cheap; and the externalities of using them, like carbon emissions, were of almost no concern.

Those days are over. We can’t count on cheap fuel.

And the costs associated with fossil fuel energy are astronomically high.

If we don’t curb our carbon output, the consequences for our environment and our economy will be devastating.

Companies can certainly keep using energy like they did in the 20th century, and they may enjoy a little more uninterrupted growth.

But when the seas start rising, floods start increasing and droughts start spreading and lasting longer, you'd better believe that's going to be bad for business, and it's going to have a huge effect on every person here in America and around the world.

Companies need to adapt to the new realities of the 21st century: Start being more efficient and using cleaner fuels.

And this comprehensive climate and energy legislation will help change the market incentives to make it more profitable for companies to be cleaner and greener.

Let's not forget that we have seen a very similar version of our current energy debate before.

Back in the early 1990s, I remember folks being concerned about a market-based approach to curb acid rain pollutants.

Prominent trade groups estimated that compliance would cost business $50 billion a year and lead to sky-high utility bills.

Ultimately, it ended up costing less than 5 percent of that—and when you account for inflation, consumer’s electricity rates actually ended up declining by almost 20 percent over the next decade and a half.

The message here is simple. If we get the incentives right, business will respond.

Right now, too many potential clean energy investors are sitting on the sideline because there is no certainty in the marketplace.

And it just doesn’t make any sense to invest until you know what the rules of the road will be. That’s why we must act now.

The longer we wait, the more countries like China are going to leave us behind.

Some of you have probably heard Secretary Chu mention that China is investing over $12 million an hour in clean energy and efficiency. That's $9 billion a month!

And those aren't just investments to meet their own domestic energy needs and climate challenges. Those investments are designed to turn China into the global destination for clean energy innovation.

And if we don't get our act together, we're going to be watching the capital, the businesses and the good paying jobs ending up in Shanghai instead of Silicon Valley or other communities across America.

America has all the brainpower and the resources we need to provide an answer to the world's energy problems.

Now, we just need to find the will.

Through the Recovery Act, President Obama has already made the biggest federal investment in clean energy in American history.

And every cabinet agency is playing its role to promote clean energy.

Commerce has been charged with developing the standards for a national smart grid.

As Jane can attest to, NOAA will be indispensable in helping us measure the impact of energy use on our climate.

And throughout Commerce, we are working to pursue export opportunities and foreign cooperation in the clean energy space.

For example, our International Trade Administration has recently awarded some significant grants to help companies, universities and trade associations increase their energy cooperation with Mexico, Canada and China.

These measures are critically important.

But comprehensive energy reform would supercharge all these efforts while encouraging entrepreneurs across America to attack our energy challenge.

And in a battle between climate change and America's entrepreneurs, I like our odds.

Having the support of the business community in this fight is absolutely vital.

I hope you will go back to your communities and spread the message that comprehensive energy reform isn't just important for our environment. . . .

It is also the single most important thing we can do to build a clean energy economy that will deliver sustainable growth.

I hope I can count on everyone in this room to help give us a push in the right direction.

Thank you.