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Ritter: To spur cleantech, focus on national security, not climate change

Ritter: To spur cleantech, focus on national security, not climate change

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To pursue a clean energy agenda, follow the U.S. military's lead and focus on issues both political parties can get behind, former Colorado governor Bill Ritter said Tuesday at the inaugural SXSW Eco conference.

AUSTIN, Texas -- If you want to get Americans on both sides of the political spectrum on board with clean technology and energy efficiency, avoid two words: "climate change."

That's according to former Colorado governor Bill Ritter, who sat down with TIME writer Bryan Walsh here at the inaugural SXSW Eco conference to speak frankly about what worked and what didn't during his four-year tenure.

Among the topics during the discussion: water scarcity in the western U.S., the hard economics on green collar jobs and the state of climate politics. On the latter point, Ritter said the best thing to do is focus instead on national security and job growth -- two benefits citizens of all stripes would be willing to support.

"There's a real fault line," Ritter said. "People began to see climate change as a political wedge issue. As they did that, clean energy began to get swept under [the rug]."

Despite the tree-hugging reputation, clean energy is as much a national security issue as it is an environmental one. Consider the U.S. military, which is pushing hard for energy reductions, such as Colorado's Fort Carson, planned to achieve net-zero status by 2020.

"You don't have to get into the climate change issue to understand that it's a national security issue or a jobs issue," Ritter said. "There's a political reality that officeholders are dealing with, including the president of the United States, that [they] are not going to talk about climate change. They're pushing a clean energy agenda."

Sometimes it will take progressive policy -- such as a governmental mandate -- to achieve conservative-friendly results, Ritter said.

"In many places in America where you're looking at regulated energy markets, there's not a way to do it without government regulation," he said. "People out there will oppose you. They'll fight: you can't do it this way, you can't do it in this amount of time, you can't do it with this kind of energy, you can't do it cost-competitively…our experience is, you can."

THE COLORADO CAUSE

Ritter would know. When he took office, Colorado had recently bassed a bill formalizing targets for renewables to comprise 10 percent of the state's energy mix. Ritter said his two most impactful bills were to boost those targets to 20 percent and then again to 30 percent. Now the state's renewables percentage is No. 2 in the nation.

"Even during a very serious downturn in the economy, we saw job creation in cleantech," he said. "It was the only place."

As a politically diverse state -- equal parts Democrat, Republican and Independent -- Colorado's governor has a steep challenge to exact nation-leading energy reductions. So how did Ritter do it? Building stakeholder groups of "unconventional allies" who weren't used to sitting at the negotiating table together, he said.

"We found independent voters very receptive to this idea of clean energy creating this kind of economy, this kind of success," he said. "It was really helpful to demonstrate real progress by bringing growing companies in, successful companies."

SELLING SOLAR

Colorado may have increased the absolute number of solar and wind firms operating in the state many times over, but Solyndra's recent flame-out in California has put the U.S. Department of Energy's loan program under the microscope.

Should government really be in the position of making bets on cleantech companies?

"There are successes and there are failures," Ritter said. "A lot of people will take a failure and try to describe a whole program as a failure because of one excess."

The reality is that the loss on Solyndra represented a small fraction of the entire DOE loan program. While the company's bankruptcy was surprising and fairly sparked a measure of outrage at the agency's lack of oversight, it's a mistake to ignore the rest of the program's successes, Ritter said.

"It was only 2 percent of the program," he said. "So much of the rest of that program has really made a tremendous difference."

"I hope it doesn't make policymakers go soft on solar."

THE GLOBAL MARKET

The good news is that, in the face of economic distress, installations of solar systems in the U.S. are growing "very significantly," Ritter said.

"It is a global race," he said. "We should own the race because it's our technology, and yet we see China's made a big commitment on the manufacturing. The United States needs to stay in this fight."

The problem? Market uncertainty. While tax credits are a help, a price on carbon would really do the trick to steady markets.

America shouldn't quit on solar before it's price-competitive, Ritter said.

"People think it's about labor in China," he said. "Actually, so much of this sector involves robotics. It's not so much the cost of labor, it's the cost of energy."

Which is why the future isn't as bleak as you might think once the 2012 election cycle is in the rearview mirror, he said.

"There's still some real opportunity for us as a country to move toward a low-carbon standard," he said.

THE FRACKING QUESTION

Moving to a low-carbon standard, of course, would aid natural gas in replacing coal-fired plants. Is it simply out of the frying pan and into the fire to exchange coal for hydraulic fracturing?

"I think it really is important, if natural gas is to play a role that we're talking about in our nation as a cleaner-burning fuel, it's really important that we do it in an environmentally-sound way," he said. "The water consumption issue is probably the bigger issue, particularly here in Texas."

But it's important for states to "have their say" with how fracking operations are managed, Ritter said.

"States should not have the federal government to impose one rule to fit all," he said. "[But] I do think the regulatory authority, the EPA, is pretty important."

PUSHING ENERGY EFFICIENCY

Energy sources are one thing; consumption is another. States can do a "tremendous amount" to incentivize energy efficiency, Ritter said, from demand-side management to greener buildings.

"There's a great deal of energy to be saved by zero-energy homes," he said. "[Energy efficiency] is probably the place where you see the most job creation."

FOSTERING INNOVATION

And what of the research and development pipeline? Is the U.S. doing enough?

If the information technology industry is a benchmark, cleantech is fine on ideas but less so on private sector financing, Ritter said.

"The research funding is adequate," he said. "I hope that we don't back off on it. The place that we need to think about how we backfill is when we're taking ideas out of the laboratory, and they become an early-stage startup, the place investors call 'Death Valley.' "

And we musn't forget that the IT industry had its own share of successes and failures, he said.

"There's a lot of money parked on the sidelines right now and it's waiting to be invested," he said. "What are they waiting for? Market certainty."

WATER WORRIES

Finally, Walsh and Ritter discussed the southwestern U.S.'s extraordinary water problem, in which a large part of the country sources its water from rivers that originate in Ritter's home state.

Sometimes hard choices must be made -- it's often a zero-sum game between energy, water and food production. We need to better understand the relationship between the three, Ritter said.

"There are actually gas companies [in Colorado] that are trucking their water in from Wyoming," he said. "I don't think that's a sustainable practice."

Texas has its own share of problems with robust energy and cattle ranching industries.

"We don't want to be in a place where we have to make a choice between cattle ranching and natural gas production," he said.

When that happens, things can turn ugly. The state of Colorado has been sued by many of its neighbors because of the compacts it has with other states to deliver water.

Nevertheless, the message is clear: clean energy is a smart strategy, Ritter said.

"This is going to sound like I'm still running for office, but: I feel optimistic only because we're America. I think we can figure this out."

"We delay at our peril."

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Andrew Nusca

Editor Emeritus

Andrew Nusca is editor of SmartPlanet and an associate editor for ZDNet. Previously, he worked at Money, Men's Vogue and Popular Mechanics magazines. He holds degrees from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and New York University. He is based in New York but resides in Philadelphia. Follow him on Twitter. Disclosure