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Could We Model a National Energy Policy on 'Race to the Top'?

Former Michigan Governor Jennifer Granholm wants to see states and metro areas compete for green energy funding. 

LONG BEACH — Plenty of ex-presidents take up post-politics high-profile causes, from Jimmy Carter to George H. W. Bush to Bill Clinton. But ex-governors? Not so much. 

Breaking that mold is Jennifer Granholm, the two-term former governor of Michigan. She’s on a crusade to establish a national clean energy policy framework, one that would be powered by states and metropolitan regions.

Her big idea, presented this week at TED 2013 in Long Beach, is to establish a $4.5 billion pot of money – the same amount initially set aside for the Race to the Top program for educational innovation – that would allow states to compete for funds to incubate industries in solar, wind, geo-thermal, electric vehicle technologies and other alternatives to fossil fuel-based energy.

Given the gridlock in Washington over sequestration, taxes and spending, Granholm is asking the private sector to step up with the money for this competition – whether Google, Microsoft, Apple – well-represented in the TED audience -- or Michael Bloomberg or Warren Buffett. She says she's confident the seed money would prompt all kinds of innovation to help the U.S. catch up to the rest of the world in the global $1.6 trillion clean energy business.

“I just know how governors operate,”’ she says. “They care about jobs.”

Her own experience was influenced by the departure of Electrolux, the vacuum cleaner manufacturer, from the Michigan town of Greenville. The 3,000 jobs in that factory town were eradicated as the company took advantage of cheaper labor in Mexico. That left her thinking of what homegrown U.S. manufacturers could focus on instead.

“Every state would have something to contribute. Every state has some kind of asset,” she says. Midwestern states might innovate in wind power, while the southwest and California would naturally embrace solar. The Northeast might excel in energy efficiency, Michigan in electric car batteries, and other regions in geo-thermal, nuclear power, or clean natural gas.

“It’s how the rest of the world works,” she says, recalling a trip to China where an official asked when the U.S. was going to have a national energy policy. When Granholm spoke of gridlock in Washington, the official smiled and said, “Take your time.” Other nations, she said, “are eating our lunch” when it comes to new energy technology.

As governor of Michigan, Granholm was an early advocate of smart growth, and she has long been concerned about climate change. But she doesn’t emphasize action on global warming, instead favoring talking about jobs. With clean energy technology such a fast-growing industrial sector, she says she is more focused on “killing two birds with one stone.”

Granholm was a rising star in politics, though her Canadian prevented her consideration as a potential running mate for President Obama. More recently, there's been talk of her being looked at for a cabinet position in the Obama administration. For the moment, she's spending time in the Bay Area, teaching at Berkeley and caring for aging parents in the area.

Hurricane Sandy and volatile weather nationwide is putting the inevitable impacts of climate change front and center for the states, she says. “Every governor will come around to the reality of climate change,” she says. But for now, clean energy is a much more practical matter that just needs an organizing framework, one that will ultimately translate to the ribbon-cuttings that governors crave. “I just want to go with the most effective argument.”

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