Dear President Obama

By Scott Walker

ecosystems-0810Dear President Obama,

Congratulations on your reelection. In this modern era, presidential elections are brutal slugfests where billions of dollars are spent, hundreds of thousands of miles are flown, and grey hairs multiply like rabbits just to end up right where we started.
Now that all that silliness is behind us, you get to focus on what you are actually going to attempt to accomplish in your second term. Despite the impression that the last two years have been total gridlock, your first term was really quite productive (or destructive depending on one’s political leanings) and will surely be known for historic health care reform, winding down two wars, getting Osama Bin Laden, economic rescue/recovery efforts (auto bailout, stimulus package, etc), and issues of equality (Lily Ledbetter Act, end of DADT, etc).

Your second term is likely to be just as busy. We have to deal with the debt and deficit, comprehensive immigration reform, entitlement reform and tax reform, just to name a few. However, one REALLY BIG issue that got almost no attention in your first term — and no mention in any of the debates — was the development of a comprehensive energy plan that addresses not only our near-term desire for energy independence but also the long-term need to reduce our nation’s greenhouse gas emissions to combat global climate change. My fear is that given the immediacy of the other second-term issues noted above, crafting a far-reaching energy plan that both parties can agree on might get put off for another four years. (“Ah, screw it; let Hillary deal with it in 2017” could be the mantra at the White House over the next few years.)

I think this would be a huge mistake.

In fact, I think energy/climate change ought to be the FIRST THING you tackle right out of the gates, starting with your inaugural address and next State of the Union, and here’s how I think you ought to approach it: This country truly moves forward when the best minds from both parties bring their diverse perspectives together to solve complex problems. Many liberals are passionate about environmental protection and not handing future generations an ecological disaster. Most conservatives are passionate about lower taxes and a return to federalism (i.e., letting states innovate and take the lead in fashioning programs closer to home to address our common problems). So why don’t we combine these two passions toward a common solution?

I have long thought that we need some type of program that would fire up both the left-wing and right-wing halves of our national brain in the pursuit of dealing with energy and climate change. Then this morning, it hit me. We need a “Race to the Top” program for energy independence. What I’m recommending is that we steal a page from Secretary of Education Arne Duncan’s Race to the Top program, which awards education grants to states based on who has the best, most innovative plans for improving education in their states. Forty-eight states competed with awards from $75 million to $700 million going to both blue states like Hawaii and red states like Georgia.

Here’s how a Race to the Top for energy and climate change could work: We know the population of each state from the 2010 census, and we know the total fossil-fuel-derived energy consumption of each state based on utility company data and power-plant outputs in each state. Thus, we can calculate the per capita energy consumption of each American on a state-by-state basis. So how about this: What if each individual of a state can have their personal tax rate lowered by, say, three percent if their state can reduce its per capita energy consumption by, say, 20 percent? Say what?!?

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Yeah, so I live in Georgia. If the state of Georgia cuts its per capita energy consumption derived from fossil fuels by 20 percent, all of its citizens, including me, get a tax cut starting the next year. If a resident doesn’t “believe” in global climate change, but he likes lower taxes, he can still come on board and take his tax cut. It’s all good. There can even be a bigger prize for the top three states that have the biggest drop in per capita greenhouse gas emissions where they could earn a 4 percent, 5 percent and 6 percent tax cut for the bronze, silver and gold award, respectively.

This kind of idea could give a role to the big utility companies, to every 9-year-old kid and to all of us in between to switch off lights in our own houses (I used to be that 9-year-old kid during the energy crisis of the 1970s). We could all play a role in lowering our taxes and going for the gold while protecting and preserving our environment and natural resources for the next generation.

Now, the catch is this. Once a state hits the 20 percent reduction mark, they start receiving their tax credit for the next four years, but to keep earning it after that they have to get to another 10 percent per capita reduction. If they hit that mark, then they are good for another four years until they get to another 10 percent and so on. Perhaps when a state gets to 50 percent reduction, their residents could receive an even larger tax break. If any states followed this program, they could conceivably get to net zero GHG emissions by 2050 or thereabouts.

What kinds of innovation could this ignite? Who doesn’t like saving the planet while also saving some of your hard-earned income? I bet we’d see an explosion of renewable energy projects that would spur both the construction industry and manufacturing.

Interestingly, Mr. President, I was in your hometown of Chicago earlier this month as part of an InfoComm smart building task force meeting. Some of my task force buddies, Howard Nunes and Bill Lally, and I went to the lounge at the top of the Hancock Building to view the beautiful Chicago skyline. While others were swooning at all the pretty lights, all Howard, Bill and I could see (after spending two days talking about smart buildings) was a landscape of dumb buildings staring back at us. If you get this initiative passed, it would represent decades of growth for our industry to help turn these millions of dumb buildings into smart ones while we simultaneously help earn a tax cut for our fellow Americans.

Sure this plan is naïve and full of devils in the details, but what’s your better idea? A carbon tax? (Yeah, that’ll pass the House…NOT!) Cap and trade? Dead on arrival.

So listen, Mr. President, as fate would have it, my family will be celebrating the Christmas holidays with my wife’s family, who are from Hawaii, in Kailua on Oahu. (I assume you will be vacationing there again this year.) If you want to get together and kick this idea around down at the beach, I’ll bring a cooler full of beers. This whole “saving the world” stuff is thirsty business.

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Sincerely,
Scott

Scott-Walker-rAVe-Green-AV-0910Scott Walker, CTS-D, LEED® AP, is president and CEO of Waveguide Consulting, a leading AV, IT and acoustical consulting firm. He is also a past president of InfoComm International. Scott is recognized as being one of the primary forces behind the founding of the Sustainable Technology Environments Program (STEP) rating system and currently is a member of the STEP Foundation board, which is responsible for managing the STEP program. Scott can be reached at swalker@waveguide.com