The Courage to Develop Clean Energy

By Jeffrey Immelt and Jonathan Lash
Saturday, May 21, 2005

After inventing the light bulb, Thomas Edison was asked where he drew inspiration from. "I find out what the world needs," Edison replied, "then I proceed to invent."

Today the United States needs to do the same -- only now our primary objective must be to revolutionize the way we produce and consume energy. Diminishing oil and natural gas reserves, continued reliance on foreign and sometimes unstable energy sources, and global climate concerns demand nothing less.

Fundamental change will require three things: the brainpower to develop new technology, a market that makes clean technologies profitable and a strong dose of American will. Right now we have two out of three.

First: the intellectual strength. In the past decade, we have seen dramatic innovation in developing the cleanest possible energy technologies. The Edisons of today, in labs around the world, are generating breakthroughs in energy production technologies. As these technologies advance and gain strength, so do our opportunities to succeed.

We are developing a mix of improved technologies to meet energy and environmental needs in the future, tapping resources as diverse as wind, solar, nuclear and natural gas. The key is higher efficiency, lower cost and fewer emissions. One example is in the burning of coal for power. Today we have cutting-edge gasification technology that could cut worldwide carbon dioxide emissions by millions of tons -- a significant step toward greenhouse gas reductions.

The second requirement for change is the market. Shareholders are more demanding than ever, and they want dividends, not "the vision thing." But we have reached the point where solving energy and environmental problems is not only the right thing to do but a profitable one as well. Green technologies are moving into the black, and the returns will improve further as economies of scale emerge.

This changing reality can be seen at major corporations such as Johnson and Johnson, Citigroup and General Electric. GE recently committed to double its annual investment in clean energy technology research and development -- to $1.5 billion -- and looks to double revenue from energy-efficient products by 2010. Together these three and others have also joined with the World Resources Institute to implement aggressive new plans to cut greenhouse gas emissions. In GE's case, greenhouse gas emissions that were forecast to rise 40 percent by 2012 are instead targeted for a 1 percent decrease. For companies of this size and scale, that can mean a real difference in the world.

So, we have the technology. We have the economic incentives. What is missing is the will to follow through.

For a nation such as ours -- which has always seized new opportunities, created new markets and developed new technologies -- our failure to close the deal on clean power is as puzzling as it is nonpartisan. The lack of a consistent energy policy has, for more than a decade, been a central part of the problem, as we have failed to fully execute the breakthrough blueprints that exist in wind, solar, clean coal, nuclear power and other resources. The result is that we have ceded leadership to Europe and China, which have hurtled ahead, improved their economies and strengthened their national security. If necessity is the mother of invention, procrastination is its enemy. On such a critical global policy issue, America must lead.

We believe that government can restore its leadership position by moving beyond the gridlock on energy and environmental policy. We need a policy that commits to market-based approaches that can drive environmental improvement. One that thinks outside the barrel -- and promotes diverse energy sources that can help break the shackles of oil dependence. One that frames energy and environmental practices as essential, national core competencies -- the same way that vibrant technology policies underpinned the stunning IT innovations of the 1980s and '90s while continuing to fuel their growth.

It is clear that none of this will come easily, and it will come only if government, industry and others agree on a way forward and commit the intellectual and financial capital needed to find solutions and execute them. But is failure an option? Edison once hollered, "Be courageous!" at those who doubted the United States' capabilities. To realize a more stable energy future, we must be courageous, and we commit to standing, shoulder to shoulder, with the leaders that emerge.

Jeffrey Immelt is chairman and chief executive of General Electric Co. Jonathan Lash is president of the World Resources Institute.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company