WASHINGTON — Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., said at a renewable energy forum on Tuesday that Congress is poised to take "giant leaps forward" to build a green economy after having taken "baby steps" in recent years.
"We need to move to renewable energy big time," Reid said while pledging to continue leadership on what has become a signature issue of his Senate career.
Congress in its last session passed a major bill to increase the fuel efficiency of automobiles and promote energy-saving light bulbs, office buildings and home appliances. Late in the year, it extended tax credits for solar, wind, geothermal and other nonpolluting power sources.
Although those were noteworthy, "let’s not pat ourselves on the back too much because they were baby steps, things that should have been done decades ago," Reid said.
With President-elect Obama poised to enter the White House, and with Democrats with solid majorities on Capitol Hill, "we have a great opportunity to abandon the baby steps of the past and embrace the giant leaps forward we’ll need in order to make sustained and long-term progress," Reid said, including development of a transmission network to convey electricity generated by renewable resources.
"For all of us who believe that a focus on clean energy can lead to a new era of sustainable economic growth, this is an exciting time," he said.
Reid, the Senate majority leader who turned 69 on Tuesday, was the lead speaker and the main focus at a forum organized by Third Way, a progressive think tank, and held at the Washington office of Google Inc.
Representatives of 45 businesses, think tanks, trade groups, advocacy organizations and labor unions took turns recommending to Reid what might be done now, following the election of Obama, who has made renewables a major part of his energy strategy.
Most agreed the steps must include a national strategy to limit carbon emissions, while also directing federal spending and tax breaks to encourage forward-looking energy technologies and to traditional industries that are welcoming a switch to a new "green" economy.
Several Nevadans participated, including Danny Thompson, executive secretary of the state AFL-CIO; renewable energy consultant Rose McKinney-James; Rich Hamilton, president of Great Basin Wind; Jeneane Harter, founder of Renewable Nevada; and Chris Brooks, director of Bombard Renewable Energy of Las Vegas.
While generally supportive of the recommendations, Reid did not say what steps he will make his early priorities. The first major bill next year will be an economic stimulus plan that is expected to include funding for renewable energy projects as job creating vehicles, but Reid said Obama officials are working on the measure and he hadn’t seen it.
Meanwhile in Nevada, Reid is assembling a blue ribbon panel of energy experts, industry officials, business and organized labor representatives and politicians of both parties to develop "clean energy" recommendations for the state, his office confirmed.
Reid’s formation of the panel is a follow-up to the two-day national clean energy summit that he convened in August in Las Vegas. Members of the panel will be announced in several weeks, a spokesman said.
"The goal is to develop a list of legislative and administrative priorities that will reduce our reliance on fossil fuels and position Nevada to be the leader in a national clean energy revolution," Reid spokesman Jon Summers said.
Although there was a focus on renewable energy when gasoline was $4 a gallon this summer, Reid told his audience in Washington the biggest challenge is to prevent backsliding, as happened when the energy crisis of the 1970s went away and Americans returned to their gasoline-guzzling ways.
"My concern is that is going to happen again," Reid said. "The price of oil now is $100 a barrel less than it was just a short time ago. Are we going to once again forget? Are we going to be dependent on importing 70 percent of our oil, no matter the price, from somewhere else?"
Reid said pushing forward on renewables carries health benefits.
"What is the cost of doing nothing with today’s energy problems," he said. "There is not a major city that I know of that doesn’t have an air quality problem and that is because of fossil fuels. It is drowning our country, and that is why a lot of people believe respiratory illnesses are now endemic with kids in America today."
Contact Stephens Washington Bureau Chief Steve Tetreault at firstname.lastname@example.org or 202-783-1760.