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Remarks at Clean Energy Economy Forum, the White House

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Friday, July 16, 2010

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Commerce Secretary Gary Locke
Remarks at Clean Energy Economy Forum, the White House

I’d like to thank you all for coming.  It's great to see so many of my administration colleagues, as well as some familiar faces from the business community.

With us today are representatives from some of the companies that accompanied me on a major clean energy trade mission to China and Indonesia in May.  It's great to see you here.

As you all know, scaling up America's clean energy industry is a top priority of the Obama administration.  It’s central to our security, our environment and as President Obama has said,

“The nation that leads the clean energy economy will be the nation that leads the global economy.  And America must be that nation.”

Clean energy is key to revitalizing an American industrial and manufacturing base that once supported the most prosperous middle class in history.  And it can create exactly the types of high-skill, high-wage jobs that we need more of in America.

Now, we all know there are plenty of people in government, in business and in the media who question the promise of clean energy.      

They tell you that clean energy may be “nice.”  It might make us “feel good.”  And it might even be worth investing in.  But to imagine: That it can produce a “substantial share” of the world’s energy? That clean energy can be a “significant driver” of economic growth and job creation?

Well, the critics say, that’s “just not realistic.”  “Just not serious.”

I say if the next few decades of American energy policy look like the last few decades – where our will to act on clean energy has risen and fallen with the price of a barrel of oil – then the naysayers may be right.

Our challenge is to write a different story. 

To convince people of the truth: that the development of clean energy and energy efficient technologies could spur the greatest economic opportunity of the 21st century.

The question before us is: Will America seize that opportunity?  

Because if we don't, other countries will be happy to.

Right now, countries in Europe and Asia are making massive investments in clean energy.

That train has already left the station. 

But the race is wide open for which country will become the epicenter of clean energy innovation, and the destination for the capital, businesses and jobs that come with it.

Today, we’re going to talk about how we ensure America is that nation, by focusing on:

  • Spurring innovation throughout our domestic clean energy supply chain; and
  • ensuring America's competitiveness in the international marketplace

The Obama administration and the Commerce Department have already made unprecedented efforts in both of these areas.

The Obama administration has:

  • invested over $80 billion in clean energy through the Recovery Act;
  • passed the toughest fuel economy standards in history; and
  • incentivized more stringent efficiency standards for buildings, appliances and consumer-electronics. 

Meanwhile, the Commerce Department has put its resources behind growing clean energy businesses at every step in the business development process.

Our Patent and Trademark Office has announced a pilot program that allows inventors who have already submitted patent applications for green technologies to have their submissions receive an expedited review.

Our National Institute of Standards and Technology is making tremendous progress in working with industry to develop standards that will support the nation-wide deployment of the Smart Grid. 

And we are working on cutting-edge research to facilitate more energy-efficient manufacturing and construction processes.

As we work to scale up the clean energy industry at home, Commerce is also playing a key role in the president's National Export Initiative, and we’re putting a particular focus on opening up opportunities for U.S. clean energy and efficiency companies abroad.

In fact, Commerce is working with the Department of Energy to create the nation's first “National Renewable Energy and Energy Efficiency Export Strategy.”

What we’re doing is producing results.   

Just yesterday, I was in Georgia visiting a company named Suniva, which manufactures high-efficiency solar cells. 

With a great product, a great work force and help from federal agencies including the Department of Energy, the Export-Import Bank and Commerce, Suniva exported more than 90 percent of its product to Asia and Europe last year, while creating 150 new clean energy jobs in the United States.

But for all the promise we see in a company like Suniva, and in many of the companies gathered here today, we know that more must be done.

Right now, billions of investment dollars are sitting on the sidelines because of a lack of certainty in the energy market marketplace.

Until that changes, we can't expect businesses and utilities that are accountable to shareholders to make a wholesale transition to clean energy. 

And we can’t expect more entrepreneurs to make investments in clean energy solutions that may or may not be self-sustaining in the energy marketplace.

In short, we can’t count on the full participation of the private sector.  Without that, America cannot solve its energy challenges or significantly scale up its clean energy industry. 

This is why President Obama – along with business leaders like many of you, and corporate heavyweights ranging from U.S. Steel and Nike to John Deere and IBM – are pushing for the Senate to pass comprehensive energy legislation that features a price on carbon.

This would essentially put a floor under the price of fossil fuels – instead of the uncertain target we have today – and it would send a surefire market signal to every entrepreneur and business in America that it’s safe and profitable to make long-term investments in clean energy and efficiency. 

Still, many of the loudest voices in our energy debate continue to make apocalyptic, overblown claims about energy reform that have a depressingly familiar ring to them.

Over the last few decades, short-sighted politicians and their industry allies have repeatedly predicted that sensible environmental and energy regulations would spell disaster; be it the Clean Air and Water Act or the fight we had over a market-based system to curb acid rain back in the early 1990s.

In virtually every case, those measures cost far less than predicted and ultimately provided tremendous benefits for society.

The lesson here is simple:  When you get the incentives right, the private sector can respond with solutions that are both effective and affordable. 

And that is the way innovation should work in America. 

Despite the claims of critics that government has never or will never play a constructive role in our economy, this is the way U.S. innovation has always worked, be it the development of the Internet or solar panels or even memory foam mattresses.

The federal government can help set the stage for innovation with investments in basic research and with sensible rules, regulations and incentives; which enable the actual innovating, creating and commercializing in the private sector.

That's a message I've been trying to send everywhere I go in this country.

This week, I’ve attended a series of events that explored different facets of innovation in America.

I was in Ann Arbor Tuesday and Atlanta Thursday at forums discussing the technology commercialization policies that govern how we move new inventions and new technologies out of university research labs and into the marketplace.

On Wednesday, I was at a meeting talking about strengthening America's cyber security. 

And here I am today talking about clean energy.

They are three completely different issues. 

And yet the common denominator with all of them is that this administration is trying to learn about how we can serve as a catalyst for innovation from the people on the frontlines of these challenges … how we can empower universities, entrepreneurs and businesses to develop the breakthrough technologies we need to get this economy roaring again.

America’s failure to scale up our clean energy and efficiency is not because of a lack of potential.  Rather, it’s because of a lack of vision.  And a failure of leadership.

After a century dominated by fossils fuel use, it's naturally hard to imagine another way.  There are plenty of smart and experienced people saying that our energy future has to look a whole lot like our energy past.

But it doesn't have to be that way.  And in fact, it simply can’t be that way if we want to preserve America's national security

With the right vision and the right commitment, we can build a clean energy economy that provides good jobs and sets America and the world up for decades of sustainable economic growth.

Everyone here today is playing a part in helping that future become a reality – and I want to urge you to keep pressing to keep America's clean energy policies moving in the right direction.

Thank you.