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Inslee bullish on nation’s clean-energy future

Congressman Jay Inslee with his Prius and a photo of a solar plant he toured. - Brad Camp/Staff Photo
Congressman Jay Inslee with his Prius and a photo of a solar plant he toured.
— image credit: Brad Camp/Staff Photo

The congressman takes a cue from the space exploration programs of the past.

America has often found opportunity in crisis.

It happened in the 1960s when the threat of Soviet space supremacy emboldened Kennedy to send astronauts to the moon, simultaneously launching an era of growth and innovation for the American economy.

Now Congressman Jay Inslee believes the looming threat of global warming can galvanize the American spirit and spark a revolutionary shift toward renewable energy that will, like the Apollo program, lift the nation to new heights.

The first step is for Americans to embrace the challenge of reining in greenhouse gasses, and know that there is still time to do it.

“It’s evident that people have fear – fear that we can’t beat this problem. And fear breeds inaction,” Inslee said Monday, at his home in Winslow.

There was only optimism in Inslee’s kitchen that morning. Seated at his table with a view of passing ferries, the 4th term Congressman from Washington’s 1st District radiated ideas stockpiled from a summer spent researching his first book, “Apollo’s Fire: Igniting America’s Clean-Energy Economy.”

In the “nest” his wife Trudi made for him on the second floor of their home, Inslee worked three computer screens and two phones for months, conducting hundreds of interviews with experts and gathering grassroots stories from green minded citizens across the country.

He shared those stories with co-author Bracken Hendricks, a climate change specialis and former aide to Al Gore, who was doing similar research from Washington, D.C.

The pair was continually inspired by the innovation they encountered – by farmers in Missouri replacing their crops with wind turbines and by a developer in New York building “green” buildings that use 50 percent less energy than required by building codes.

“I was optimistic when I began the book and I was twice as optimistic when I finished,” Inslee said. “Thank goodness we have a lot of very smart people in this country.”

His confidence pervades “Apollo’s Fire.” The book is expansive, unendingly positive and as ambitious as the movement it calls for.

In his foreword to the text, former president Bill Clinton writes, “Jay Inslee has not only an answer (to climate change), but a field guide for our future – and a comprehensive one at that.”

Hendricks and Inslee map how the federal government can guide the energy industry away from fossil fuels while investing in a diverse portfolio of renewable energy technologies. At the same time individuals, businesses and local governments can focus on maximizing energy conservation and promoting sustainable programs.

The result, Inslee says, will be a wave of innovation that will bolster national security and lower the trade deficit by reducing America’s dependence on foreign oil, while creating badly needed jobs in a new “green collar” technology industry.

It’s an intimidating task considering all of this must be done in the coming decades to stave off what the book calls “the greatest challenge ever faced by all of humankind at the same time.”

But Inslee is encouraged not just by scientific advancement but also by the growing popularity of the green agenda in government.

“I’ve never seen a political change as rapid as this one,” Inslee said. “The bad news is the ice in the arctic is melting. The good news is the ice of resistance in D.C. is melting as well.”

It may take a softened congress and White House for Inslee and his allies to pass the ambitious legislation they have drafted.

“Apollo’s Fire” was partly written as ground support for the Apollo Act, which Inslee introduced in June as a comprehensive renewable energy bill to begin the transition away from an oil-driven economy.

Inslee is confident that congress can pass new energy efficiency regulations during the Bush administration. He’s not so optimistic about getting enforceable caps on greenhouse gas emissions past the president.

“It helps to have a visionary president and we lack that right now,” Inslee said. “We at least need a president that won’t stand in the way.”

Moving ahead

Even without government guidance, many large corporations are moving ahead with their own renewable energy and conservation plans.

Companies like General Electric, Dow Chemical and even Wal-Mart have begun integrating green technology in there branches and British Petroleum has been installing solar panels on its service stations in the United States.

Inslee said these aren’t just corporations trying to cultivate a green image.

“It’s not just token,” Inslee said. “It’s money, and these people realize they can save money and help their bottom line.”

With government funding, and focus in the form of regulation, Inslee believes the private sector will make clean energy innovations that will rival the technology boom of the “space race” era.

Ideally America would become a leading exporter of renewable energy technology.

Auto workers in Detroit would be put to work building hybrid cars and steel workers would craft turbines for wind farms.

Solar plants and carbon dioxide-trapping coal generators would crank out emissions-free electricity and farmers would sew a myriad of biofuel crops to power America.

There are examples of the new economy already at work in the Northwest.

In the traditional timber town of Grays Harbor, construction has begun on what will be largest biodiesel refinery in the nation, a facility that could create 500 new jobs to the remote area.

“There is going to be a transition,” Inslee said. “It will be America’s destiny to lead the world, and we will if we can adopt policies that will let it work.”

Beyond the halls of government and industry, Inslee and Hendricks believe ordinary people will play a role in the clean energy economy by conserving energy and becoming active in local and national sustainability projects.

Most households can get a significant return in savings if they use more efficient appliances and transportation or even invest in a “green home” with a solar roof and renewable building materials.

The trick, Inslee said, is overcoming the high initial cost of the technology, which is why he wants to secure more federally guaranteed home loans for sustainability and see government invest in mass transit to give Americans a real choice in transportation.

On Bainbridge Inslee is encouraged by the work of sustainable architects and last week he test-drove an electric car made from scratch by Bainbridge High School students in an after-school program.

“In a utopian dream sense I would want the island to say they will lead the country and lead the world. Its the perfect place to do that,” Inslee mused. “There are well educated people here, well-read people here, who know what’s going on.

“It would be the perfect place to to say ‘We want to be the greenest city in America.’”

In their brick house on Hawley Way, the Inslees are taking their own modest steps toward a more sustainable lifestyle.

They use low-energy light bulbs, burn bio-diesel in their living room stove and keep the temperature down and, he said, “we wear a lot of sweaters.”

In the yard they use electric lawn mowers and an electric weed eater and they own one of the five or so Toyota Prius hybrid cars in the neighborhood.

There are plenty of small jobs left to be done, like replacing their old windows to keep out winter drafts.

“We’re still trying to decide how to finance that with two kids in college,” Inslee said.

“We’re chipping away at it,” said Trudi, joining her husband at the table. “Just like everyone else.”

Inslee said that despite the massive institutional changes that need to take place for the clean energy revolution to come about, individuals still have the power to effect change locally and demand a new direction from their government.

“Vote, invest, talk and have confidence,” Inslee said. “But this cannot happen without big government action.”

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Inslee reads

Jay Inslee reads from his new book “Apollo Fire: Igniting America’s Clean Energy Economy,” at 7 p.m. Oct. 13 at Eagle Harbor Books. A discussion and book-signing follows.

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