GE's chief wishes he'd soft-pedaled green talk

Jeffrey Immelt, who heads the largest U.S. conglomerate, says his focus on the environment may have led critics to think he wanted to save the planet at the expense of GE's growth.

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General Electric may have grown its clean-tech business fourfold over the past six years, but Chief Executive Jeffrey Immelt wishes he had spent a little less time talking about it.

The head of the largest U.S. conglomerate, who in January was named a top adviser on job creation to U.S. President Barack Obama, said yesterday that GE's focus on the environmentally friendly aspects of its wind turbines and high-efficiency appliances might have led his critics to believe he was more interested in saving the planet than growing the company.

"If I had one thing to do over again, I would not have talked so much about green," Immelt said at an event sponsored by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. "Even though I believe in global warming and I believe in the science...it just took on a connotation that was too elitist; it was too precious and it let opponents think that if you had a green initiative, you didn't care about jobs. I'm a businessman. That's all I care about, is jobs."

Jeffrey Immelt, GE chief GE

As investors pour more money into energy technologies such as solar panels and wind turbines, which produce electricity without releasing the carbon dioxide associated with global climate change, the renewable energy and smart-grid industries will generate some 10 million to 15 million new jobs worldwide, 3 million of 5 million of which should be in the United States, Immelt said.

The company's Ecomagination initiative, which also encompasses products such as energy-efficient jet engines and railway locomotives, will generate some $21 billion in revenue this year, Immelt said. That is more than four times the $5 billion recorded in 2005, but less than the $25 billion by 2010 goal the Fairfield, Conn.-based company set in 2009.

Immelt, who often points out in speeches that he has never been camping as a way of downplaying his environmental interests, said he has lost interest in calling on the United States to develop a more comprehensive energy policy. His prior calls that the nation adopt regulations that put a price on carbon raised the hackles of some shareholders.

"I'm kind of over the stage of arguing for a comprehensive energy policy. I'm back to keeping my head down and working," Immelt said.

But he could not resist wading into the debate around Massachusetts' proposed Cape Wind project, which could be the nation's first offshore wind farm, although opponents in the nearby Cape Cod resort area have complained it would sully their views.

"I have a lot of friends that have houses on the Cape and on Nantucket, and I say build those big turbines there," Immelt said.

Those words came despite the fact the Cape Wind turbines will come from one of GE's largest rivals--Siemens AG.