Renewable energy is the buzzword du jour everywhere, and perhaps nowhere more so than in the Midwest. This is a region with lots of sun, water, wind, biomass -- all the ingredients of the green energy industry. It also is a region with an economy that desperately needs the kick start that energy investment could supply.
But like so much else, renewable energy seems to be happening more elsewhere -- especially in Europe -- than in the Midwest. If our region misses out on its energy opportunities, it may miss out on its future.
All this -- how to get this energy and to pay for it -- will be the agenda in Cleveland on Oct. 18 at a major conference at the City Club sponsored by the host of this blog, the Global Midwest Initiative of The Chicago Council on Global Affairs. I'll be there to emcee this conference, but the real stars will be speakers who wrestle with these issues every day.
The conference is our third annual conference and the first to be held outside Chicago. Click here for the venue and agenda. It will be open to the public.
The title of the conference is a mouthful -- "Financing the Midwest Energy Transition: Innovation and Infrastructure." But the subject matter is crucial.
The guiding idea is that the Midwest has most of what it takes to lead the next energy economy. But the costs will be high: the region has a huge sunk investment in "old" energy, based on coal and other fossil fuels, which must be replaced or upgraded. Then it's a matter of paying for the new and sustainable energy systems that will take its place. Right now, this money isn't there, and how to get it will be a big theme at the conference.
The Midwest is moving with all deliberate speed -- but no faster -- into the energy future. Wind farms, including the huge installation north of Lafayette, Indiana, dot the region. Newton, Iowa, has put wind turbine manufacturers in the empty factory where Maytag once made home appliances. Greenville, Michigan, which once relied on Electrolux, now makes solar panels. Northeast Ohio is launching the first freshwater wind turbines in Lake Erie. At Purdue, Iowa State and other research universities, scientists are working to find an economical way to turn biomass -- basically weeds and waste -- into energy, including the next generation of cellulosic ethanol.
But the obstacles are huge. Wherever wind farms go up, they generate as much NIMBY opposition as power. More seriously, nobody has figured out yet how to store this wind power, for days when the wind doesn't blow, and especially how to transmit it over long distances: the first world region to solve these problems will have a lock on the energy future.
People in Newton tell me the orders for their wind turbines are to slow to come in. Most of the Greenville solar panel jobs didn't go to former Electrolux workers. Five years ago, scientists told me that they were five years away from producing cheap forms of cellulosic ethanol and other forms of biomass. Today, they're still five years away.
The future is in sight, but it's still out there on the horizon.
And then there's the question of paying for it. This will loom large at the conference. Frank Samuel, former science adviser to the Ohio governor, will talk about the shortage of venture capital in the Midwest and how to increase it. Frank has done a major report, for The Chicago Council and for the Brookings Institution, on creating a Midwest venture capital fund of funds.
John Austin, well-known around the Midwest for his trail-blazing report, The Vital Center, on the Great Lakes economy, will describe the next Midwestern infrastructure. Rob Denson, president of the Des Moines Area Community College, will describe the training of workers for the new energy economy. The high school dropouts who manned the assembly lines in the old industrial economy don't have the skills to staff this new economy, and Rob and other community college leaders are on the front lines in making this happen.
Carolyn Whitacre is vice president of research at Ohio State, which is trying to take research breakthroughs in university labs and turn them into commercial companies -- and jobs. Steve Brick is a senior fellow on energy and climate at The Chicago Council, and he'll be laying out an overall road map for the Midwest energy transition.
The keynoter will be John Fernandez, one of the most interesting and valuable members of the Obama Administration. Fernandez is the former mayor of Bloomington, Indiana, and now the assistant commerce secretary responsible for economic development. Like many Midwestern leaders, he sees the need for regional development, linking the region's assets and getting past our traditional Midwestern rivalry with neighbors. I've heard him speak before, and he's definitely worth hearing.
The Cleveland Foundation has helped put on this conference, and both the Foundation president, Ronn Richard, and its fellow for energy, Richard Stuebi, a founding principal of NorTech Energy Enterprise, will be talking.
The purpose of the conference, like all of our Global Midwest activities, is to bring people together from around the Midwest to talk about mutual interests, swap ideas, find out what works and what doesn't work and, in general, to break down the boundaries that keep so much good Midwestern thinking locked up between state lines.
When we launched our search for a Midwestern response to new global pressures three years ago, we were fighting a lonely battle. The Midwestern Governors Association kept governors in touch with each other. But there was very little linking professors, community college leaders, mayor, economic development people and other Midwesterners with so much in common and so few places to share it.
That's changing, happily so. New regional organizations are forming. John Fernandez is pushing Midwesterners to think and work regionally. Only last month, the Ohio governor, Ted Strickland, hosted a Governors Association meeting on "Invest in the Midwest: We Make the Things that Power the World."
We're going to keep pushing this agenda, and it's nice to see that other Midwesterners are responding. The Cleveland conference is an example of this process. If it sparks ideas about paying for this new energy economy, it will be a success.