Synergy of Opposites- New Alliances for a Green Economy

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by Till Kötter

2010 is a rough year for US climate and energy policy.  Senators Kerry, Graham, and Liebermann have been trying for months to build bipartisan support for a bill. But after the heated debate on healthcare reform, the Democratic base is increasingly warning against similar efforts so shortly before the Congressional elections in November. 

Many of the 435 representatives and 36 senators up for reelection are afraid of losing their seats if they do not succeed in lowering the unusually high unemployment rate of almost 10 percent.  A look at the crisis-ridden industrial states of the Midwest reveals how difficult it is to push through energy-policy reforms, but also how unprecedented alliances are emerging.  In Indiana, Michigan, and Ohio, small-businesses owners, union leaders, and representatives of faith-based and veteran organizations are increasingly joining the ranks of the advocates of green markets. Investments in renewable energies and energy efficiency are intended to create new jobs and lead the region out of crisis. 

Michigan: The cradle of the American middle class is shifting gears

Keith Cooley doesn’t mince words. “Michigan is probably the first of the 50 states to go into a tough time around economic problems and may be the last to recover.” (watch video interview) Cooley worked 30 years for the automaker Ford.  He knows about the brilliant rise and rapid decline of an entire region, about the importance of the auto industry as the cradle of the American middle class:  “In many cases, people could make a very good living without having to have a college or technical degree.”  That has since changed.  Chrysler, GM, and Ford are stumbling.  For over 10 years, business closings and mass unemployment have had a profound impact on the lives of the people in the region.  Cooley saw it coming and shifted gears in time.  Today, the native Detroiter leads a 19-employee non-profit organization called Next Energy.  “We consider ourselves an economic accelerator for the alternative energy field,” Cooley says of his business model.  “So we are helping the supplier industry to diversify their span of business, asking them not only to look at automotives but also at the wind industry, biomass, or solar.”  Cooley is thus relying on the structural policy of Jennifer Granholm, the Democratic Governor of Michigan and a strong proponent of having 10 percent of Michigan’s electricity generation come from renewable energies, a quota to be achieved by 2015.  “We have outstanding engineers and production capacities (. . .).  They can be very easily transferred to the clean energy industry, whether that is the solar or the wind industry –and with a view to the next generation of the automotive industry, which is likely to be electrification and advanced storage industries,”says Brandon Hofmeister, Granholm’s energy adviser (watch video interview).  Yet the energy quota and tax incentives are only gradually having an effect and many companies are still cautious.  Moreover, after two terms in office, Granholm cannot be reelected, and some of the neighboring states could offer better conditions following the elections.

Indiana: Small-business owners overcome fear of change

The incentives for renewable energies in the southern neighboring state of Indiana are not more promising though.  With coal accounting for 97 percent of electricity generation, Indiana is at the top of the list of American polluters. “Half of the coal we burn is from someplace else” says Terry Black (watch video interview) of Green Way Supply.  “Actually we’re not a coal state, but the political and economic control that exists from the coal industry, still controls the leadership in the state.”  Small-business owners like Black are challenged, because Indiana lacks sufficient promotional tools like a renewable portfolio standard or an electricity feed-in regulation for renewable energies.  “One of the major barriers is just fear of change,” explains Laura Arnold of the Indiana Renewable Energy Association (watch video interview).  “Indiana is in many respects a very conservative state – conservative, defined as resistant to change.”  And yet one still meets a host of energy-policy progressives in Indiana.  Dozens of small-business owners are promoting their services at the festivities marking Earth Day in downtown Indianapolis.  “There is a lot of interest in construction trades.  People who are doing retrofits, new construction of homes as well as commercial buildings,” Arnold says.  “And you can’t export the construction of a new energy efficient building overseas so there is a great deal of opportunities there.”  Optimism that she needs in Indiana, for the state lacks strong political advocates to push for more progressive energy legislation. Republican Governor Mitch Daniels will remain in office until the end of 2012 and Democratic Senator Evan Bay will not run again in the upcoming Congressional elections.

Ohio: Local manufacturing companies  and markets diversify

It’s a different story in Ohio.While coal likewise accounts for a very high 78 percent of electricity generation in the Eastern neighboring state, Democratic Governor Ted Strickland is striving ever harder to expand the use of renewable energies.  “We see that as a potential for Ohio to use its existing strengths, to transition to an economy that is much more sustainable and over the long term will develop and create tens of thousands of jobs to replace those that we have lost in older industries,” says Mark Shanahan, energy adviser to the governor (watch video interview).  Like Michigan, Ohio also sees its strength in the manufacturing industry.  “In Northwest Ohio, we have a big glass industry that became centered here to serve the auto industry.  And we have started to see significant transition using that core competence to move into solar technologies that use a lot of the same materials, a lot of the same skill set,” Shanahan says.  Market leader First Solar recognized that fact and created 700 new jobs in Perrysburg, near Toledo.  But Ohio wants to go even further.  “It is one thing to develop, produce, and sell new technologies, but somebody has to make sure that they operate,” Shanahan asserts, emphasizing the enormous potential of local markets to create additional jobs in installation, maintenance, and services.  That is exactly what Ted Howard is also counting on. The University of Maryland professor is co-founder of Evergreen Cooperatives, a company that has been in Cleveland since 2009.  “It is an attempt (…) to create green jobs in low-income neighborhoods (. . .) that have both very good wages, health benefits, and wealth-building opportunities,” Howard explains, stressing the employees’ stake in the company (watch video interview).  One of the cooperative’s three new business lines is called Ohio Solar.  It offers weatherization and solar equipment and wants to create 100 new jobs by the end of the year.

Blue Green Alliance: Green jobs become the good jobs of the future

Labor unions, too, are concerned about the salary levels of newly created jobs.  With a union organization level of 12 to 19 percent, Indiana, Michigan, and Ohio are among the states with the highest employee representation in the U.S.  When Leo Gerard, President of the United Steelworkers, announced the founding of the Blue Green Alliance in 2006, his office was inundated with hate mail.  Steelworkers feared the new coalition between unions and environmental organizations would cost them their jobs.  Yet now they are starting to reconsider.  “It is not a choice between good jobs or a clean environment. (. . .)  It’s either we have both or we have neither,” Gerard explains (watch speech).  On May 4, 2010, he proudly stands next to Carl Pope, chairman of the largest U.S. environmental organization, the Sierra Club, and announces the latest number of joint members – 8.2 million.  “We have built a movement, not just an organization.  And this movement is going to be the engine that drives the change and that creates the good jobs of the next generation,” Gerard says in Washington, DC, in front of the 3,000 people attending the third national conference. “We have a lot to celebrate,” says David Foster, executive director of the Blue Green Alliance (watch the speech). “But there is much more that needs to be done. (…) We need to pass climate and clean energy job legislation in the U.S. senate now.”  With his call for political leadership, Foster is not alone anymore.  After only three years, prominent speakers testify to the political relevance of the Blue Green Alliance.  Nancy Pelosi, Speaker of the House of Representatives, wants members of Congress to show the courage to pass energy-policy reforms despite the upcoming election campaign (watch speech).  John Kerry, Chairman of the U.S. Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, is calling for more willingness to compromise and an end to party politics (watch speech).  And Dr. Steven Chu, U.S. Secretary of Energy, warns the U.S. could lose jobs to Asia and Europe in the race for green technologies if it does not increase its efforts (watch speech).

Faith: Green jobs empower communities to take stewardship of God’s creation

Others also want to work across party lines.  Churches and faith-based organizations are increasingly engaged in bringing about a shift in energy policy.  “By reducing the impact we have on the planet, we are taking better care and stewardship of God’s creation.  But we are also able to save congregations money that they can then use for social work and ministry,” says John Davidson of the Disciples of Christ, a Protestant church with congregations in 46 U.S. states (watch video interview).  Davidson administers the Church’s loans and helps congregations nationwide in planning building renovations and new construction.  Davidson developed an energy audit intended to help congregations save $10,000 to $30,000 annually in energy expenses.  Many congregations are also discovering that energy-saving measures can successfully relieve the financial burden on their struggling members and at the same time create jobs. Organizations such as GreenFaith and the National Council of Churches are increasingly coming to the aid of their congregation members with loans to perform energy-saving renovation work.By creating green jobs, we are helping low-income members of the community, supporting technologies of the future, and ending our dependence on foreign oil,” also says Sybil Sanchez, Director of the Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life (watch video interview).  The potential is enormous.  In the District of Columbia alone, the unemployment rate among skilled laborers stands at 42 percent.  At the same time, one-third of all U.S. carbon emissions can be reduced through efficient energy usage.

Veterans: Green jobs facilitate reintegration and serve the nation

American dependence on oil and the search for a new job are also prompting many military veterans to change their ways of thinking. “We all see energy security as a major movement towards securing our own nation. Becoming independent and sustainable means less conflicts overseas, less of our brothers and sisters going into harm’s way,” says Garett Reppenhagen (watch video interview).  The former sniper in the U.S. army now works for Veterans Green Jobs, an organization that offers initial job opportunities and retraining to soldiers returning from foreign deployments.  Brief but hard-labor jobs in the field of urban forestry and building renovation are designed to facilitate veterans’ reentry into the civilian labor market.  Retraining programs in the field of energy efficiency and renewable energies are intended to promote their skills and point to new career paths.  “Veterans come home with some already amazing skills: work ethic, working in diverse groups, value system, and a sense of service.  And something that green jobs provide is that sense of service, that you’re doing something for your nation and your community.”  Michael O’Gorman is also counting on that (watch video interview).  The farmer from California and now Director of the Farmer Veteran Coalition operated three of the most successful American projects for organic vegetable cultivation before he decided in 2008 to help veterans enter farming.  An exceptionally high number of American soldiers come from rural areas.  Sustainable farming not only helps to ease returning veterans’ reintegration but also offers them long-term career prospects.

And so the U.S. moves closer to the Congressional elections.  Industrial interests in the coal and oil states remain influential.  Many of the regional political battles have become deadlocked.  And yet, new, coalitions are emerging among small businesses, unions, and faith-based and veteran organizations, which all have one thing in common: the potential to fundamentally change America, to lead it, with bipartisan cooperation, to a different, hopefully greener, future.

Till Kötter
Project Coordinator
The Climate Network-Transatlantic Solutions for a Low Carbon Economy

In April 2010, Till Kötter and Midwest Renewable Energy Fellow Christine Wörlen traveled to four Midwestern states to prepare for the Midwestern Green Jobs Tour 2010.  In cooperation with the Blue Green Alliance, this tour through Indiana, Minnesota, Michigan, and Ohio, from July 12 to 16, 2010, will present strategies to create jobs in renewable energies and energy efficiency.  The discussions with regional decision makers, union leaders, and representatives of faith-based and veteran organizations will culminate in a report with policy recommendations that will be presented in Washington prior to the Congressional elections. For more information contact Mr. Till Kötter at

This project is supported by the European Commission. The European Commission is not responsible for the content of the program.