Clean tech depends on federal policy

The Seattle Post-Intelligencer

November 14, 2007

By Ben McMakin and Curt Rich

This guest column first appeared in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer on November 14, 2007.

In their Nov. 7 guest column, clean-tech advocates Ron Pernick and Clint Wilder correctly conclude that local leadership and regional incentives give the Northwest an early advantage in this fast-growing industry. However, they are too quick to dismiss the importance of federal policy when they state, "The region cannot afford to play the waiting game with Washington, D.C., which has shown little leadership on clean-energy action."

While it is sometimes torturous to witness, Congress is actively driving toward federal policies that will profoundly change the way we produce and consume energy in the 21st century. Washington's clean-tech advocates, entrepreneurs and financiers cannot afford to sit on the sidelines but must fully engage in this debate.

The Senate is working on a farm bill that includes substantial new incentives to develop a commercial cellulosic ethanol industry and to expand the nation's biofuel production. With more than 20 million acres of forestland, and some of the most productive farmland in the United States, Washington state stands poised to emerge as a Saudi Arabia of the emerging biofuel industry.

Congress is also considering energy legislation that will further accelerate the national mandate on renewable fuel use, require electric utilities to buy renewable electricity and increase fuel-efficiency standards in new automobiles. These new policies present all sorts of opportunities for innovative Washington state companies. For example, entrepreneurs are working at harnessing the energy found in Puget Sound tides, developing software that results in energy-efficiency savings for large networks of computers and cultivating revolutionary new high-value dedicated energy crops.

Energy tax legislation is also on Congress' plate. Favorable tax treatment, more than any other policy, allows emerging green products to enter and compete in the marketplace. The burgeoning Northwest biodiesel industry would not exist without the federal tax incentives currently available to biodiesel producers. This federal subsidy allows the industry to attract capital and develop production capacity as the market for biofuels grows.

Finally, Congress is starting to move forward on climate change legislation. While the debate is likely to last several years, its impact will be economy-wide and will dramatically accelerate the growth of the clean-tech industry. Clean-tech businesses in the Northwest have an enormous stake in the outcome and should ensure their perspectives are included in this debate.

The Washington congressional delegation is at the forefront of efforts to promote clean tech and clean energy at the national level. Sen. Maria Cantwell assumed the mantle of clean-tech leadership before the industry had a name. Rep. Jay Inslee is a close confidant of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and serves on her special climate change panel. Sen. Patty Murray is using her position in the Senate leadership and as an Appropriations subcommittee chairwoman to drive federal investment toward renewable-energy projects.

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