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Our Renewable Energy Industrial Cluster Needs Your Vote on May 4

By Rubin Patterson, Ph.D.
Guest Column

As the saying goes, “There’s nothing more powerful than an idea whose time has come.”  There is truth in that statement, but entrenched interests in support of an old, destructive idea are pretty powerful, too.

Consider the current issue of renewable energy. Overcoming fossil fuel industries’ opposition to achieving renewable energy advancements requires politicians who have access to the levers of power and knows how to maneuver them. Representative Edna Brown – a candidate in the race for Ohio Senator from District 11 – is one of many politicians in the state who is advocating for renewable energy on behalf of jobs and business opportunities.

Rubin Patterson, Ph.D.

During my conversation with Edna Brown last week, she made it abundantly clear that she is focused on helping Toledo gain a growing and sustainable niche in the global economy. Rep. Brown and I spoke on April 11, just three days after the World Bank approved a $3.75 billion loan to South Africa to help enhance the country’s energy portfolio.

The uninformed observer may wonder what does a $3.75 billion World Bank loan to South Africa have to do with Toledo. It turns out that renewable energy-related institutions in the region could potentially benefit from the loan’s $260 million allocation for the development of 100 megawatts of concentrating solar (or solar thermal) power and the development of a 100 megawatt wind power facility, as well as $450 million earmarked for the development of low-carbon energy efficiency components.

As a member of the delegation that accompanied me to South Africa last summer, Brown met with several of the nation’s energy officials. She also visited the office representing the Ohio Department of Development near Johannesburg. That office reported on a number of programs underway to expand trade between Ohio and South Africa, including renewable energy. 

Brown is the second most senior member in the House Democratic Caucus. If she wins the May 4 primary and goes on to win the general election in the fall, she would then be a freshman senator. However, after serving nine years as a legislator in Columbus and previously serving on the key Economic Development Committee, she would be capable of effecting consequential outcomes for the region’s renewable energy industry. 

Bear in mind that Toledo’s celebrated industrial cluster of renewable energy firms would never have gotten off the ground the way it has if it had not been for substantial aid from the Ohio Department of Development. For the last several years, Brown has worked with the Ohio Department of Development to support the emergence of renewable energy activities in the region. She is also capable of helping local institutions engage collaboratively with the Ohio development office in work related to international projects such as the aforementioned 100-megawatt solar and wind projects.

As a person involved with both southern African affairs and renewable energy, I was delighted to learn about this aspect of the World Bank loan. However, most of the loan, just over $3 billion, will also help with the construction of what will be one of the world’s largest coal-fired electric facilities. This is the dreaded downside of the loan. If not one single additional coal-fired facility were to be built anywhere on the planet, not only would I be happy, but the overall environment would be a lot more stable.   

Although South Africa has not built a major new power plant of any variety in nearly 20 years, Eskom, the country’s monopoly electric power company, has expanded access to electricity from 34 percent to 81 percent of the population in the post-apartheid period.  With its existing energy portfolio, Eskom is incapable of ramping up the energy needed to power the requisite economic growth so that the 25-plus percent of the population who are unemployed and suffering in one of the most inequitable societies in the world can experience significant relief. Nevertheless, many who recognize our collective necessity of moving “beyond coal” advocated against the loan. 

As James Speth (dean of the Yale University’s School of Forestry and Environmental Studies and co-founder of the Natural Resources Defense Council) put it: “To reduce environmental impacts faster than the economy is growing requires rapid technological change.”  South Africa’s economy will grow much faster as a result of the 4,800-megawatt Medupi coal-fired plant, but it will also cause significant environmental damage. 

In order for this environmental damage to be reduced as the economy grows, renewable energy technologies have to be developed and commercialized much faster than they are now. As it turns out, the World Bank loans facilitate that process.

For instance, the South African solar energy project will be a pioneering undertaking since it will be the largest solar thermal project with storage and the largest central receiver-type solar power project in the world. The project pushes the envelope and will be the world’s benchmark for large-scale grid-connected solar thermal power.

It is in Toledo’s economic interest for The University of Toledo and regional renewable energy companies to engage South Africa’s new energy endeavors. Brown is keen on this fact and is eager to make these connections if she is elevated to the senate. Her engaging the Ohio Department of Development in supporting local institutions so that they can compete to help expand renewable energy applications in South Africa and other parts of the world can contribute to economic growth in Toledo and the global environment. 

On May 4, you might want to have those facts uppermost in mind as you go to the polls to elect our next state senator.

Rubin Patterson, Ph.D., is professor of Sociology and the interim director of Africana Studies at The University of Toledo.


Copyright © 2010 by [The Sojourner's Truth]. All rights reserved.
Revised: 10/31/14 06:45:40 -0800.



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