Green advocates see potential post-election

By Mike Hixenbaugh
Published Nov. 12, 2008

Even as results were trickling in last week, North Carolina environmentalists had begun celebrating an election that promises a paradigm shift toward green energy and environmental sustainability.

So says Carl Samuelson, a 23-year-old campaign organizer for the Raleigh-based Environment North Carolina. Samuelson and other advocates see great potential to build a green-energy economy once Barack Obama is in the White House and oilmen President George W. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney are out.

Kay Hagan’s victory over Republican U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Dole ads to a Democratic majority in Congress, and at the state level, Governor-elect Bev Perdue brings campaign promises to invest in renewable energy with her to the governor’s mansion.

But with budget deficits awaiting Obama and Perdue – upward of $1 trillion in Washington, D.C., and $1.6 billion in Raleigh – will they be able to follow through on their energy plans?

“Certainly,” Samuelson said. “Presidential and gubernatorial leadership really does matter. It really does structure what does and doesn’t get done. We’re very optimistic, but we need to get to work immediately.”

Not five days after the election, Environment North Carolina released a comprehensive blueprint for how the U.S. can escape its dependence on foreign oil. Other environmental advocates already have begun calling on the president-elect and Congress to make substantial investments to deliver energy savings, new green jobs and environmental benefits by boosting wind and solar power.

Molly Diggins, director of the Sierra Club’s North Carolina chapter, agreed that the Election Day results put North Carolina in position like never before to address and conquer environmental issues. She said there is a short window of opportunity – maybe just two years – for the nation to unite in the face of steep economic and environmental challenges.

Diggins hopes to see another federal stimulus package focused on triggering renewable energy initiatives, she said. The Environment North Carolina report makes the case that America has enough renewable potential – through solar, wind and geothermal energy – to power the country several times over. But harvesting such energy will require substantial up-front investments and years of work force training.

“When you start talking about $800 billion to bailout Wall Street, some of these numbers start to look like peanuts,” said Samuelson, who calls building a green-collar workforce his generation’s version of the New Deal. “This investment would guarantee a return on taxpayer dollars and create jobs.”

Environment North Carolina estimates a $100 billion investment in clean energy would create 2 million jobs nationwide and 62,000 jobs in North Carolina within a few years. That total would build on a small number of green-collar jobs already available, experts say.

Rob Holsten is the dean of Continuing Education and Sustainability at Wilson Community College, a school tagged by Perdue as one of the state leaders in building a renewable-energy work force. Holsten said he, too, sees potential for expanding a green economy under Obama and Perdue administrations.

“It’s our hope that government money will be pumped into infrastructure while we continue to develop the workforce needed to sustain this new green economy,” Holsten said.

The N.C. Sustainable Energy Association estimates there already are 6,500 jobs in the state directly related to energy efficiency. Among the manufacturing jobs, it counts the production of solar cell connection wires at Torpedo Specialty Wire in Rocky Mount.

With proper investment, the Environment North Carolina report says, future regional jobs would include building wind turbines to be placed along the coast, manufacturing solar panels to be mounted on any southern-facing buildings and retrofitting existing buildings for energy efficiency.

“Clean energy in America is not some distant dream,” Samuelson said. “Not anymore. There’s just a huge potential for green architecture, green building and green jobs. The time to set goals and act on them is now.”

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