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Environmental activists see possibilities in new leadership

The tide is changing

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Even as President-elect Barack Obama claimed victory and declared the country ready to confront its deepening troubles, jubilant North Carolina environmentalists were pinching themselves. Obama is in the White House, and oilmen Bush and Cheney are out. Kay Hagan forms part of a strong Democratic majority in the U.S. Senate, and her fellow Democrat Bev Perdue is in the governor's office. N.C. environmentalists see congruence between the planet's climate needs, the nation's clean-energy plans, and state-level initiatives with the potential to create thousands of new jobs and to cut electricity costs in the bargain.

There is congruence, too, between a former community organizer as president, his tremendous base of support with young voters, and the determination of this new generation of Americans to move beyond old divisions and focus on global warming before it's too late.

So says Carl Samuelson, a 23-year-old transplant to Raleigh from Minnesota who came here for a job with advocacy group Environment North Carolina. Samuelson says the converging forces can merge into economic revitalization at a grassroots level.

"It's an incredibly exciting time. The way we treat our environment, our economic problems, creating jobs, and the human health issues are all interconnected, and all of a sudden they've been launched onto the public stage," he said. "There's just a huge potential for green architecture, green building and green jobs."

On the other hand, Samuelson gets frustrated when he hears politicians discuss cutting carbon emissions by the year 2050.

Such faraway targets are meaningless even to his generation, he says. "We need to set high goals for 2020, and for 2010, as well so we can pass verdict on what our leaders have done. By 2030, I'll be nearly 50. I want to be able to look back then and say, so this was the turning point when we made the change we needed."

The change Samuelson and other environmentalists are talking about is outlined in a report recently published by the Center for American Progress, a Washington think tank, which takes off from the Obama campaign's "New Energy for America" plan, and the Perdue campaign's proposed N.C. Green Business Fund.

  • The nation invests $100 billion in "green" initiatives research, development and manufacturing of solar-energy panels, wind turbines and biomass-conversion systems. (Obama's plan calls for $15 billion a year for 10 years.)

  • Mass-transit investments

  • Conservation retrofits for buildings and houses

  • "Smart-grid" electric transmission lines

  • Federal grants to the states to support initiatives like Perdue's, which calls for tax incentives to help clean-energy businesses succeed and major job-training programs in community colleges

  • Community groups organize around housing programs, hiring workers to install new windows, attic insulation and solar panels

Obama's estimate is 5 million new jobs created in 10 years. The Center for American Progress says 2 million can be created in two.

Such jobs are open to entry-level workers and can't be outsourced to a cheap-labor country. Transit workers, by definition, work here, as do those in construction trades. As for solar-panel arrays and wind turbines, they're heavy enough, Samuelson says, that building them in local plants—near where they'll be installed—makes the most economic sense.

Molly Diggins, director of the Sierra Club's North Carolina chapter, agrees that the combination of Obama, the Democratic Congress and a new Perdue administration "gives us the opportunity to work together to address the nation's problems and the state's problems in a way we haven't done before."

But, she adds, it's a window that will stay open only as long as the public sees the programs working. "We have at least two years now to make incredible progress," Diggins says.

At the state level, environmentalists supported Perdue heavily over her GOP rival, Charlotte Mayor Pat McCrory. One test of whether environmentalists were right will come as the new governor appoints members to the North Carolina Utilities Commission. The commission regulates power companies such as Duke Energy and Progress Energy and decides who will controls energy-conservation programs—the big utility corporations or public agencies.

Richard Harkrader, a pioneering solar-energy advocate and longtime leader of the nonprofit N.C. Sustainable Energy Association, says it's critical that Perdue appoint commission members who will reform the utilities' rate structures. Curently, he says, Duke and Progress are interested in selling more electricity, because there's profit built into every extra watt they generate. "It needs to be reformed so they have an incentive to invest in conservation," he argues.

Harkrader's new business, Carolina Solar Energy, is building "utility-scale" solar-energy arrays like the one it installed on the N.C. State University campus—432 solar panels generating up to 75 kilowatts of electricity that's fed to Progress Energy.

He's confident about Perdue. "I've been meeting with Bev for a couple of years now, and she really gets it," Harkrader said before the votes were counted. "She's looking for big changes, not just incremental ones."

Perdue will have an immediate appointment to the five-member commission as Sam Ervin IV steps off following his election to the state Court of Appeals. Three more appointments to the five-member board will follow by July 1.

Community organizers, too, will be scrutinizing Perdue's appointments. Several hundred came together in Durham two months ago for a "Growing a Just, Green Economy" conference. They want a piece of the action for low-income folks and minorities.

That's why Pete MacDowell, an organizer with NC Waste Awareness and Reduction Network, was relieved when McCrory, a career Duke Energy executive, lost. On green jobs and social justice, MacDowell says, Perdue has a strong platform. Now the question is, Will she follow through?

"It's going to take new leadership in [the N.C. Department of] Commerce and from the governor to make things happen," says Bill Holman, another top environmental advocate who was Gov. Jim Hunt's environmental chief in the '90s. "But I think the people are ready for it if she'll provide the leadership."

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