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Green-jobs czar Van Jones plugs energy innovation

Green-jobs advocate Van Jones makes the case for the economic and environmental payback from efficiency and clean-energy businesses.

WALTHAM, Mass.--Green-jobs advocate Van Jones has gone from being a community organizer in Oakland, Calif., to a community organizer in the White House.

Jones last month was named special adviser for green jobs, enterprise, and innovation in the White House, where he is tasked with coordinating green job-related initiatives among different government agencies. On Thursday at the Bentley University Leadership Forum, he gave a speech on the economic implications of clean-energy policies.

Jones, founder of the Green for All organization and author of the "Green Collar Economy," is best known for advocating job creation for low-income people in clean-energy businesses, such as weatherizing homes or installing solar panels.

His message to Bentley students was that, after many years of little change, business people are ready to let a "riptide of innovation" flow through the energy industry--if a new set of rules are put in place.

"The energy sector today will be as unrecognizable 10 years from now as the information technology sector is from where it was 10 years ago if we let Barack Obama do his job," Jones said.

Green-jobs advocate and White House adviser Van Jones at Bentley University. Martin LaMonica/CNET

The stimulus package passed earlier this year includes billions of dollars to promote business in renewable energy and efficiency. The law provides loans for wind and solar farm developers, $11 billion to upgrade the electricity grid, $5 billion to weatherize building to be more energy efficient, $1.6 billion in energy research and development, and a half billion dollars in job training.

The most promising businesses in the near term are in energy efficiency and renewable energy--solar, wind, geothermal, wave and tidal power, and "smart biofuels," Jones said.

Further out, the industries that hold the most promise are those at the intersection of "IT and ET," or information technology and energy technology. That means smart-grid technologies to make the flow of power across the grid more efficient and energy storage.

"Five to 10 years from now, the people making the most money are the people who figure how to store those clean electrons and move them around the country," he said.

The employment potential from clean-energy technology innovation crosses spans from "GEDs to Ph.D.s," he argued, as there's both a need to service wind turbines and invent new battery technologies.

Political showdown
But despite his upbeat take on how green-technology industries can create jobs, Jones recognizes that changing the energy industry is a massive undertaking for both economic and political reasons.

Innovation in the energy sector has been held back by incumbent companies with powerful lobbyists in Washington, he said. He joked that the U.S. is on the "post whale-oil strategy" because petroleum oil came into wide use after whale populations declined.

"Somewhere out there somebody in her mind or her garage has a Google, or Yahoo, or Microsoft, or YouTube for energy. She will never get that product to market and if she does, she will never get to scale," he said. "Because the rules have been written to protect the pro-polluter status quo at the expense of the innovators and the entrepreneurs and the Earth itself."

Next week, hearings in the House will begin on the American Clean Energy and Security Act of 2009. That bill calls for a system to regulate greenhouse gases, a contentious issue in energy and climate policy.

The Obama administration favors a cap-and-trade system where heavy polluters need to buy permits for carbon emissions. The government sets a cap on the total emissions level, which would decline over time, and polluters can buy and sell those permits to meet those targets.

Detractors of carbon regulations say that imposing a cost on polluters for carbon emissions will be passed onto consumers and hurt businesses.

Echoing comments earlier this week from Carol Browner, Obama's assistant on energy and climate change, Jones said that American businesses have been able to meet previous environmental mandates, including the Clean Air Act, through competition.

Industry overestimated by six times the costs of meeting regulations to reduce air pollutants that cause acid rain, Jones said. There will be a lot of "economic fear-mongering" about carbon regulations as well, he predicted.

In the case of meeting carbon emissions limits, Jones said many businesses, such as heavy manufacturers and utilities, will be motivated to invest in technologies that make them operate more efficiently, which typically have a relatively fast payback.

Although Jones cast the political discussion on energy as a choice between "dirty and clean," in response to a question, he took what could be called a conservationist's view toward fossil fuels.

"We don't know really how valuable that stuff will be in 100 years from now, 200 years from now," he said. "The carbon resources that we have...took a couple millions of years to create. It makes good sense to be good stewards of it."