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Friday, February 12, 2010

Wisconsin: Focus on energy education

By Danny Sptizberg and Stephen Collins

Earlier this week, fellow Daily Cardinal opinion writer Anthony Cefali posed a question: “How do we [in American education] inspire our science program to shoot for the moon, or at least our own modern equivalent?” Well, we think we have an answer.

Look no further than clean energy. Some are calling it the biggest market opportunity in history. Experts of all stripes have repeatedly stated that the nation that wins the clean-energy race will be the nation that leads the 21st century economy. Discovering and implementing cheap, clean and reliable energy technologies is our generation’s final frontier.

But, as Cefali asked, how do we get there? President Obama has proposed doing so by increasing funding for energy education and training through a program called RE-ENERGYSE (short for REgaining our ENERGY Science and Engineering Edge). More than 100 organizations, including the University of Wisconsin-Madison, signed a letter last summer urging Congress to support the program, which would augment energy education in universities, training schools, community colleges and even K-12 teacher education. It’s easy to see why: UW-Madison professor and energy policy expert Greg Nemet said that he thinks “maybe the biggest opportunity is to take advantage of the fact that we have tens of thousands of students here who could potentially be working on [creating a clean energy economy].” However, Congress ignored last summer’s call to action by rejecting Obama’s $115 million budget request for RE-ENERGYSE.

Despite Congress’ lack of support for energy education and training, hope is not lost for Wisconsin. The Wisconsin State Legislature is currently considering a bill dubbed the Clean Energy Jobs Act (CEJA). CEJA rolls out a policy to ramp up renewables to provide 25 percent of Wisconsin’s electricity by 2025. This policy, known as a Renewable Portfolio Standard (RPS), makes sense. The RPS ensures a stable, long-term market for renewable energy, thus creating market opportunities and driving investment in wind and other low-carbon technologies. Investment in turn makes clean energy cheaper and lowers utility bills. Perhaps more important, the state’s Economic and Policy Staff has estimated CEJA would create more than 15,000 jobs. In addition to more jobs, the bill provides an opportunity to develop smarter students and a stronger workforce.

Why add a provision to the bill to increase funding for energy education and training? Because the RPS alone will not create the low-carbon energy system Wisconsin needs. The Governor’s Task Force on Global Warming recommended that Wisconsin implement “substantial increases in federal and state research and development (R&D) for greenhouse gas (GHG) reduction technologies.” R&D is particularly crucial to figuring out ways to modernize the electricity grid, store wind and solar power and invent breakthrough technologies. CEJA could support R&D by giving UW-Madison—recently ranked among the top 10 universities for cleantech—and other Wisconsin institutions the funds to advance our energy system. To sustain the R&D of clean energy, CEJA must also invest in Wisconsin’s students. At a recent town hall, President Obama said: “We’re not going to be able to ramp up solar and wind to suddenly replace every other energy source ... [W]e’ve got to look at how to make existing technologies and options better.” To meet our clean energy goals over the next century, Wisconsin will need a new, well-educated generation of researchers.

To meet the short-term objectives laid out by the CEJA, Wisconsin must also invest in its current workforce. Along the lines of the proposals laid out by the Governor’s Task Force on Global Warming, we propose that CEJA directly fund the training of Wisconsinites to create knowledgeable workers who can construct Wisconsin’s clean energy economy over the coming years.

We realize that with Wisconsin currently short on cash, it may be fiscally difficult to add an additional program to CEJA. If adding our proposal to CEJA does indeed prove politically impossible, we recommend incorporating it in the next state budget. Now or in the near future, Wisconsin needs to increase energy education. Gaining a competitive edge in clean energy requires not only opening markets with policies like a RPS, but taking advantage of those markets by creating talented researchers and a skilled workforce.

As the saying goes, if you teach a man to fish, he will build a clean energy future. If we fail to invest in today’s students, we will miss a critical opportunity and give other countries a head start in the global clean energy race. This is our chance to lead the generation of a low-carbon economy.

Stephen Collins and Danny Spitzberg are pursuing master’s degrees in public affairs and environmental studies, respectively. Please send all responses to

(This article was originally published in the Daily Cardinal)

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