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Clinton: Energy Efficiency Is Not Sexy, But Important Low-Hanging Fruit

Former president Bill Clinton acknowledged Monday during the National Clean Energy Summit 2.0 that energy efficiency is not sexy. But, he said, it's the easiest-to-reach low-hanging fruit that will create jobs and reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

"It's worth remembering that the least sexy topic is where the jobs are," Clinton said during a speech after noting the country has lost nearly 7 million jobs since the beginning of the recession.

Clinton was one of a number of politicians, government officials and energy industry execs who gathered for the second annual clean energy summit in Las Vegas, Nevada to discuss this year's theme -- jobs and the new economy. The panel included Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nevada; John Podesta, President and CEO of Center for American Progress Action Fund; Oklahoma billionaire and natural gas proponent T. Boone Pickens; former vice president and Nobel Peace Prize winner Al Gore; and Department of Energy Secretary Steven Chu.

Clinton referenced a newly released report by the Center of American Progress that outlines a plan to develop an energy efficiency industry to retrofit 40 percent of the country's building stock -- or 50 million buildings -- within the next 10 years. The think tank's report estimates its Rebuilding America plan would require more than $500 billion in public and private investment and create about 625,000 sustained full-time jobs directly or indirectly throughout the decade. Under the plan, energy use in those buildings would be reduced up to 40 percent and generate between $32 billion and $64 billion in annual consumer savings, according to CAP's report.

The biggest problem in instituting an energy efficiency initiative to retrofit the nation's commericial and residential buildings? Lack of financing, Clinton said.

"I've concluded the main reason people argue against this is the complete absence of parallel financing and the fact that all costs are up front and the benefits spread out."
Heck, is that all?

Clinton offered a few solutions, some more politically palatable than others. He suggested the country's largest energy service companies like Johnson Controls could back loans provided by banks to help encourage lending. He also recommended a small business loan guarantee program aimed at financing retrofits or local programs that help homeowners pay for energy efficiency and weatherization efforts over time through their property taxes or mortgage payments.

UPDATE: I somehow failed to mention Clinton's other idea, which Earth2tech wrote about Tuesday. The idea of creating legislation that would require utility decoupling, which means disconnecting utility profits from the sale of electricity. Clinton said this could help utilities finance retrofits of residential buildings.

It should be noted, federal funds are already going towards a national weatherization program. The DOE's Weatherization Assistance Program is distributing about $5 billion in stimulus dollars provided for under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009.

Clinton argued that the federal dollars and other private efforts, while a good start, amounted to "playing around."

I wrote about some of the difficulties of launching a nationwide energy efficiency program in a post about consultant firm McKinsey & Co.'s recent report on the subject. I didn't spend a lot of time on financing, which quite frankly is probably the biggest hurdle next to convincing the general public that it's a worthwhile effort to begin with.

And that's where Clinton focused his message: convince them it makes economic sense, unlock the estimated $900 billion in available loans currently held by U.S. banks and you've got yourself a nationwide energy efficiency program. Interestingly, he pointed to Cash for Clunkers as a model initiative that could help boost electric vehicle sales.

"This has worked like a dream and it proves the American people will bite if it makes good economic sense."
Some other tidbits from the summit:
  • Natural gas, and specifically unconventional shale gas, was the other clean energy summit darling. Pickens, obviously, was a natural gas cheerleader during the event. But Reid, Podesta and others talked up natural gas as well. This from Reid in the opening remarks: "A year or so ago I started taking missionary lessons from a group supporting T. Boone Pickens. I've taken the missionary lessons, I've met with him and I've been converted. I now belong to the Pickens church." WSJ's Environmental Capital delves into the natural gas-as-the-go-to-problem-solver in its coverage of the clean energy summit.
  • Terry O'Sullivan, general president of the Laborers' International Union of North America, noted 1.6 million construction workers are unemployed and touted the benefits of a retrofit and residential weatherization program. He pushed for fair contracting and living wage policies.
Image of former President Bill Clinton and Oklahoma oilman and natural gas proponent T. Boone Pickens at the National Clean Energy Summit 2.0 from the Center for American Progress, CC 2.0