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Columns

February 8, 2011

National agenda needed to advance green technology

In his State of the Union address, President Obama issued a call to action for Americans to "out-innovate" the rest of the world and build on our history of doing "big things." Green technology is the next big thing, and it's our best hope to reinvent ourselves as competitors in the global economy. But we won't get there without a comprehensive national agenda supported by all parties -- political, yes, but also businesses, consumers, educators and students.

A revitalized economy based on clean energy makes perfect sense. Energy independence will save money, create jobs and improve national security; energy innovation could put us back on top by creating the opportunity to sell the products we develop to the world, thereby reducing our trade deficit, creating American jobs and strengthening our economy.

Even if we can manage to get out of our own way and move forward without endless haggling and debate, there are many obstacles to our success: Chinese protectionism, the undervaluation of Chinese currency compared to the dollar and intellectual property theft, to name a few. (What good is American innovation if our products are copied, produced more cheaply and sold back to us?) Outsourcing is a huge problem. With a vast supply of workers willing to log 14-hour days for $400 a month, minimal environmental and worker safety regulations, and easy access to low-interest loans, it's no surprise that China, India and other developing countries are so appealing to American corporations. The green tech industry is no different. Last month, Evergreen Solar Inc. announced it would shut down its publicly subsidized solar panel factory in Massachusetts, laying off 800 workers and moving operations to China.

The argument that outsourcing is good for everyone because it lowers the cost of the product for the consumer may be true to a point -- but not when we've got a 9 percent unemployment rate and a record budget deficit.

Things have to change.

We can start with corporate tax reform. Yes, close the loopholes so all companies pay what they owe. But let's also make it harder for green-tech companies to move overseas. Offer incentives for those who create American jobs and stiff penalties for those who leave.

We can create domestic demand for our own clean-energy products by requiring defense contractors and government agencies purchasing green technology to get it from American companies -- and offering incentives for businesses to do the same.

Our government should be encouraging every American household to save energy and invest in clean energy. We could do this with an overhaul of personal income tax credits. What are credits for child care, moving expenses and mortgage interest doing for the economy? Let's focus instead on bigger tax credits for solar, wind and geothermal heating systems; energy-efficient appliances, doors and windows; compact fluorescent light bulbs and programmable thermostats -- and offer an extra credit for products made in America. Let's extend and expand credits for advanced-technology American-made vehicles and add credits for people who walk, bike, carpool or use mass transit to get to work.

Let's also add tax credits for purchases of food produced within a 100-mile radius. Supporting the local food market reduces energy costs related to transportation and puts money into the hands of small businesses rather than factory farms and corporations.

We must invest in education -- but not just to train teachers and raise standards in science, technology, engineering and math, although these are crucial in building the work force we will need to develop cutting-edge products. We should also invest in technical colleges and vocational programs because in addition to scientists and engineers, we will need farmers and builders and technicians.

We must continue to invest in innovation -- through low-interest loans and grants for new businesses as well as funds for research and development, especially in areas where we still have a competitive edge, like space. What if we could harness solar energy, store it on satellites orbiting the earth and beam it back down when and where we need it?

Locally we have a concrete example of innovation in Ioxus, which recently announced plans to move into the former Soccer Hall of Fame building and create at least 30 new jobs. Launched in 2008 with help from start-up grants similar to the ones Obama is proposing, Ioxus is rapidly expanding production of high-performance ultracapacitors -- small energy-storage devices used in urban transit systems and wind turbines, among many other applications.

This is great news for Oneonta, and a positive step on the path to "win the future."

Lisa Miller is a freelance writer who lives in Oneonta. She can be reached at lisamiller44@hotmail.com.

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