Alternative Energy: Rebirth of Our Economic Engine in the Wind

Pundits are fond of comparing Americans to Romans and forecasting our imminent fall. The plain truth is that we're living up to the reputation. But as we enter the death spiral of our civilization, history also teaches that this is what it looks like right before a renaissance. Nothing drove that home better than a recent gathering of the wind energy industry in Chicago.

Walking the floor of the exhibit hall at McCormick Place inspired a vision of a world to come -- one fueled by clean energy. Many of the companies showcasing turbines, gears and fittings used to consider Detroit automakers their bread and butter. Now they've retooled and also make products for wind energy.

As consumers of energy in the post-industrial world, we were defined more by convenience and less by commitment. We craved appliances to make life easier. Owning things -- a home with two refrigerators, mood lighting and two vehicles -- became the predominant way of creating meaning in life. Now, as our financial markets reel and our planet gasps, Americans are seeking a new vision to define happiness. In this context, the wind energy business is struggling to gain acceptance.

Clean energy is not just a simple enhancement or a pop-up solution. The costs associated with building a wind farm are considerable. It's a move that demands a commitment to the big picture. If a town or city wants clean energy, it needs to invest in the equipment and maintenance to make it so. Hence, energy is politicized commodity, in which citizens have a big stake.

Consider that wind energy requires a city to find the right land for a staging area, build consensus and pop for the capital investment in the equipment. While the savings is there, total return on the investment may take 15 years. That's why state and federal rebates or tax credits lie at the crux of the industry's future. And access to loans and capital investment needs to be unfrozen.

The hard news of our nations' larger situation is nothing to gloss over. As I toured the American Wind Energy Association's event last week, I saw companies of all sizes and stripes, boot strappers and blue chips alike. It was easy to picture jobs being created. The pulse was upbeat. It felt hopeful. What lies ahead is worth being optimistic about, especially for Chicago. Mayor Daley made commitments to green and is living up to them in one fashion or another.

The growing alternative energy economy that is booting up needs incentives to flourish. As the Obama administration conjures its green policies, American citizens need to school themselves on clean energy, including wind power. Overhauling our energy resources is not a passive act. We can't sit and wait for government to create the next economy for us. Energy is critical to how we'll thrive going forward. We need to pull together, understand the facts and co-create the world we want to live in.