Rep. Jay Inslee’s Fire Lights Up Renewable Energy Conference

U.S. Representative Jay Inslee walked into a room today full of VCs and portfolio managers who have seen a bloodbath in their cleantech portfolios. But he delivered a message that certainly got the crowd to take its anxious eyes off their Blackberries, to think a few months ahead to a new opportunity.

“The cavalry is going to arrive in Washington DC in January 2009,” said Inslee, a Democrat representing Washington state’s First District, with enough fire in the belly to get the audience of to interrupt with applause. “A new president is going to arrive, and he’ll have around 30 new allies in the House and seven to nine more in the Senate.”

Inslee made his remarks this morning in front of about 200 or so investors at the Grand Hyatt Seattle at the Renewable Energy Finance Forum-West meeting. What this cavalry of new Democrats will bring, Inslee said, is some big-time change in energy policy. A new cap-and-trade system for limiting greenhouse emissions that might include an auction for emissions credits; efforts to take away subsidies from fossil-fuel companies and give them to renewable energy producers; more federal money for basic research to spark new technologies; guaranteed loans to make sure alternative energy companies have access to capital; and beefing up building codes to ensure greater conservation and energy efficiency.

He urged members of the renewable industry to plan a summit to lobby for their interests in Washington in February or March. He said he wants to see a coalition of venture capitalists, labor interests, evangelicals, environmentalists, and manufacturing interests all pushing hard for what he called a “New Green Deal.”

“We need to have an Energy Week. We need to have a march on Washington,” Inslee said to the audience.

Inslee, the only member of Congress to write a book about alternative energy, said the country’s scientific talent has to be harnessed to work on alternative energy, for the sake of climate change and creating jobs and economic growth. “We are going to solve this problem. It is our destiny. America’s destiny,” Inslee said.

Sen. Maria Cantwell followed this fiery talk with a more detailed and, at some points, sober analysis for the crowd. She cited a report that says the country needs to invest $900 billion in an improved grid to distribute and transport energy by 2030. “I’ll look for ideas,” about how to go about improving the grid, she said.

She talked about the need to improve the grid to encourage plug-in hybrid vehicles. She said she plans to personally push the new President to negotiate trade deals that open foreign markets up to renewable energy goods produced in the U.S. Right now, China imposes a 35 percent tariff on solar water heaters from the U.S., she says. The U.S., in return, has a 2 percent tariff on those goods produced overseas for sale here. “We need to reinvigorate those markets,” she said.

During the question and answer session, Cantwell let it be known, though, that she’s not a big believer in unfettered free markets to get renewables off the ground. She pointed to the legacy of Enron creating new markets for energy, and how that led to the Sarbanes-Oxley Act of 2002 to limit corporate wrongdoing. Yet the housing bust and unregulated credit-default swaps market in securities trading are probably going to lead to more regulation, she suggested. “Now here we are, we’re on the precipice of an alternative energy revolution, and we’re hamstrung again because of the capital markets,” Cantwell said.

After the speeches, I caught up with Inslee in the hallway to ask about this idea of an “Energy Week” for the renewable industry. I asked if all the various lobbies and sub-lobbies amount to “noise” rather than a coherent vision for energy policy. “I’d rather consider it music, not noise,” he said. “There is no one single voice, but we need to get all these industries to DC to help my colleagues understand” the various options, he said.

I asked him about how much the average Congressman really knows about these alternatives in depth. “There’s only one who has written a book about it, but I’d say about 20 percent of the members of Congress could list six different alternative energy technologies,” Inslee said. “I’d like to get that up to about 80 percent to 100 percent.” If the cavalry of Democrats really is coming to Washington, it sounds like they’re about to get an earful about where they should be channeling all this support they have for renewables.

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