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Posted: August 27, 2008

Is green the new gold?

DNC event tackles business of climate change

Rebecca Cole

The U.S. is falling behind other countries like Germany and Denmark in capitalizing on a renewable energy economy. That’s what a panel of business executives, high-profile politicos and senior activists told a crowd of about 200 people on Tuesday at a roundtable session during the Democratic National Convention focused on energy and climate change.

A potential trillion dollar economic boon is projected over the next several decades with the rise of new energy technologies, jobs and industry. Yet businesses are hogtied by an inconsistent national policy and trying to overcome what appears to be an insurmountable task of leveraging alternative energy sources in their processes and products.

"Without leadership we can’t get anything done," said Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.). "I am looking very forward to getting anything done in this area with a new administration. It’s very frustrating."

Klobuchar said she and other members of Congress traveled to Greenland and saw the polar ice cap melting; "the water actually gushing off it." Citing John F. Kennedy’s challenge to put a man on the moon, Klobuchar said that when you have moral leadership, technology and innovation follow.

"You have to have a visionary and empower your people," said Dan Hendrix, president of Interface, a global company that designs, produces and sells carpeting and fabrics. "When you have a bodacious goal of a zero footprint and you turn your people loose with no restrictions, you get innovation."

Calling the company "one of the greenest out there," Hendrix said four of Interface’s 10 plants are wind powered and that the company’s next challenge is to get off the grid entirely.

"What great marketing for our company to tell that to our customers and to say, 'Oh, by the way, 75 percent of our product is post-consumer recycled,'" he said.

One local company that successfully integrated alternative energy into its mix is Aspen Ski Co. The company made the switch this summer to solar power, investing $1.1 million in a solar farm in Carbondale to help offset the electricity needed to power the company’s lifts and on-mountain operations. The company partnered with the Colorado Rocky Mountain School on the project.

"It starts with an ethic and a value," said Aspen Ski Co. CEO Mike Kaplan. "The environment is our product and our business. In the ski industry, we need to do something if we want to be here."

Citing the pine beetle outbreak visible along the I-70 corridor through Colorado’s high country, Kaplan said the company is looking at a longer time horizon. "It’s a responsibility and duty to our customers who want their children to be able to ski in Aspen," he said.

With its massive user base, Google uses huge amounts of electricity to run several data centers located all over the world. Dan Reicher, the company’s energy and former assistant secretary of energy in the Clinton administration, says it’s been a challenge to cut it: "Frankly, finding large quantities of green electricity is difficult."

Reicher alluded to a possible innovation that Google is well-equipped to undertake: Leveraging its expertise in organizing and disseminating massive amounts of information, the corporate behemoth could foray into the energy display market.

"We can offer real-time information," Reicher said. "Instead of an odometer we could use a speedometer to know what energy we’re using at any given moment. We’re just getting started."

Moderator Rick Stengel, managing editor of Time, asked the group what the obligation is for businesses in terms of creating low carbon companies or a low carbon economy: Is it to do well by doing good or is it maximizing shareholder value? All agreed it was both.

"Many businesses do want to take some kind of action," said Rose McKinney James, principal of Energy Works Consulting. "But many times they stumble. Inconsistency is precluding businesses from taking that next step; they need to know they will have a consistent environment if they make significant changes."

Reicher called for legislative action to put a price on carbon. "With that we will begin this fundamental change. It’s a very important start but it’s got to be a priority for all these things to happen."

Hendrix agreed with Reicher but noted that businesses have to take action on their own. "Industry created this problem, and industry has got to get us out of the ditch."

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Rebecca Cole is the online editor at Rocky Mountain Institute, a non-profit "think-and-do" tank that drives the efficient use of energy and resources. Learn more about RMI's latest initiative, Reinventing Fire, to move the U.S. off fossil fuels by 2050.

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