Lots of energy by small business at clean energy forum

For the second time in six months, Accu-Weld Replacement Window & Door Co. in Bensalem was the stage for a “clean energy” revival.

More than 200 invited guests filled the white plastic chairs inside the green cinderblock garage area of the manufacturing firm to attend the nation’s third Clean Energy Economy Forum.

The setting for this forum may not have been as lavish as the Dow Event Center in Saginaw, Mich., or as modern as Fossil Ridge High School in Fort Collins, Colo. But the small-business setting was appropriate, because much of the discussion involved smaller companies trying to catch the green wave.

The master of ceremonies was, once again, Gov. Rendell, who in noting the rejuvenation of Accu-Weld’s business described the federal and state tax credits available for replacement-window purchases. He called it one of the smartest things a homeowner can do.

Then he paused, looked at John Haddon, president of Accu-Weld, and said, “And John, pretty good commercial, am I right?”

Yesterday’s forum was a pretty good commercial for the Obama administration’s efforts to subsidize and champion the alternative- and renewable-energy movement. Even coal, which the U.S. has mountains of but is demonized by many environmentalists, was cast as part of the solution to climate change, energy security, and job creation.

Interests representing natural gas, hydro power, fuel cells, wind power, biomass and biodiesel were all in attendance at Accu-Weld. They were largely enthusiastic about the attention and money being paid by the federal Department of Energy led by Secretary Steven Chu, the Rendell administration, and the State of Delaware under Gov. Jack Markell.

At little more than two hours, the event was part celebration of progress made, part reality check over the perils of climate change, with a heavy dose of pride in American ingenuity.

The governors introduced entrepreneurs and workers trying to make it in this new “new economy.” During a question-and-answer period, businesspeople would start by praising the federal government’s commitment and incentives, but then bring up some roadblocks.

For example, many of billions of dollars spent by the federal government have been steered to automakers and other big industrial giants. Where were the loans of less than $1 million to a start-up?

Chu provided an honest, if distressing, answer: His department isn’t set up to handle loans or grants of less than $200 million. That’s something he told me that will change in the next 18 months. “Small business is where the real innovation is,” he said.

The head of Voith Hydro Inc. in York, which makes turbines for hydroelectric power generation, saw distinct lack of emphasis on hydro power in the Obama team’s plans.

And tax credits are fine, but for struggling small businesses cash up front would be better. Chu agreed to work on it.

Though we were in Bensalem, Beijing was not far from everyone’s minds. The specter of China as carbon-emitter and clean-energy innovator was invoked repeatedly.

Clean energy is the new industrial revolution, Chu said, adding that if government motivates industry in the right way, innovation will happen and jobs will be created. “So, look, it’s a race. I personally play to win,” he said.

But no one “wins” in a year or two. “This will take half a century,” Chu said.

A webcast of the forum is on the state of Pennsylvania's Web site here.