Part motivational speaker, part humorist, part humanitarian, and part political commentator, former President Bill Clinton praised the business success of renewable energy during at the Solar Power International conference Sept. 12 in Orlando, Fla.
Clinton faced audience of a full ballroom and two overflow halls while extolling solar energy. And he mildly chastised the industry for not trumpeting its successes and allowing its opponents to dwell on its failures.
“Americans need to know” was an oft-repeated refrain as Clinton discussed green energy jobs, technological innovations, global competitiveness and other topics that solar and other renewable energy participants all know well — but the general public might not.
“I’m preaching to the saved here and I know that,” Clinton said early in his remarks, and for more than an hour of speechmaking and answering questions, a litany of facts, figures, anecdotes, jokes and commentary moved seamlessly from domestic energy policy to the upcoming election, to the work of his Clinton Global Initiative in the developing world.
“We’re going to win the battle and the only questions are when, where and how,” he said.
Mainstream media and television cameras were banned from the hall, on instructions from his staff, according to conference organizers, while only a handful of trade press reporters were allowed in the hall.
The topics were familiar. The country as a whole doesn’t realize more than 100,000 people work in the solar industry – “more than in the coal industry” – or that the sector continued to grow, even during the depths of the recession.
The battle lines in Congress are well-defined.
“People on the other side think the president and Congress totally robbed the Treasury,” while clean energy was creating jobs and new companies.
Solyndra was never put in the proper context, he said. He mildly chastised the renewable energy industry for letting its opponents frame the debate and shape the public narrative of the causes of the bankruptcy: an “interesting technology” that was undercut by a rapidly changing market, partly aided and abetted by Chinese subsidies that put several companies on the brink. “The Solyndra failure represents less than 1% of the investment portfolio” of federal guarantees, he added.
Some barbs were pointed, as Clinton said oil producers subsidies date back to 1916.
“In no country is there an energy policy that doesn’t involve a government and industry partnership.” And even global warming is a justification, as the worldwide reinsurance industry calculates its effects and the current prevailing wisdom that says “it’s toxic to mention climate change” is wrong.
And political commentary was humorous, but frank. “I can say this now because I’m no longer running for office,” Clinton said, as he dismissed the conventional wisdom that says candidates will placate their constituencies when the uninformed voters aren’t paying much attention, but will govern differently once the elections are over.
“Politicians mean what they are saying in the campaign (and will enact those policies if they are able), so what they are doing now, you need to pay attention.”
But as he closed his remarks, Clinton expressed confidence that a ”tipping point” he could not accurately predict, would make solar even more mainstream as rooftop systems proliferate.