Photo Credit: Glen Canyon Dam and Colorado River - Page, Arizona by Flickr.com user Jim Trodel

Liftoff

Rocket launches are always exciting. So are clean energy revolution launches. Although I have never attended the launch of an American space rocket, I have been there at the launch of a clean energy revolution, a more terrestrial but just as important effort – one that will surely be as big a leap for mankind as the one that took place on the Sea of Tranquility.

There is a difference between the starting points of these two types of endeavor, of course. The launch of a rocket has well defined and inarguable starting point – the electric moment when the dragon roars to life and spits incandescent clouds of flaming gas into the Florida sky. The countdown is precise, and the ignition point a thunderclap of promise.

The launch of clean energy revolution is, in contrast, a nuanced affair, and it’s starting point itself subject to interpretation. When would all the national signs signal an unalterable commitment to this journey? Could such a moment be so clear it could not be subject of debate?

Probably not. But if a national consensus about that moment is impossible, a personal recognition is not only possible, but actually happened to me on April 24, 2008. On that day, it all seemed to come together – the political, the personal, and the economic.

Politically, the day brought a long awaited cutting of a Gordian Knot that had stymied our efforts to pass an extension of the renewable energy tax credits for months before. Those tax credits were absolutely fundamental to the growth of the most promising clean energy technologies, and their imminent expiration was threatening the continued growth of the wind, solar, wave, and enhanced geothermal industries. On that day, the Ausra Solar Thermal Company was on the precipice of losing a major contract with PGE for one of the nation’s first solar thermal plants in 20 years. So I had been tearing my hair out for months as we sought a way to break the logjam that kept our extension from passing, a logjam that resulted from the Senate’s refusal to “pay for” these tax breaks with some other form of alternate federal revenue, a requirement of the House to abide new tax breaks.

But that afternoon, I talked to Dave Obey, Chair of the Appropriations Committee. After listening to Dave’s standard tongue-lashing of how doing such a radical thing would destroy his ability to move a bill at all, and would probably be the end of western civilization, he suggested it may be possible to put our measure in the imminent supplemental appropriation bill, if the Senate wouldn’t present a problem. This was golden because I already had assurances that Harry Reid would go along with the deal.

So that day, a major piece of the political puzzle came into place.

One hour later, as I strolled into National Airport (I refuse to call it Reagan), a glance at the shelves of the book store showed that three of the nation’s most mainstream magazines all had devoted virtually their entire issues to the clean energy revolution. That day, there was no escaping the issue by anyone wanting to read some light material in National Airport.

That day, a cultural piece of the puzzle came into place.

Just a few minutes later, I called Jim McDermott, the son of my colleague, but couldn’t reach him because he turned out to be in Saudi Arabia selling them his one-of-a-kind solar thermal system to which he holds the worldwide distribution rights – a system that has what may be the world’s most promising technology capable of storing energy generated by the solar thermal system. This system uses molten salt to store energy when the sun is not shining, a critical virtue that may be the final piece required to make solar energy a truly fundamental part of our electrical grid. Here was an American company selling an energy technology to the heart of the oil and gas beast, retrieving some of the billions we had sent to the Mideast. What a sweet turnabout!

That day, a piece of the technological puzzle fell into place.

So as I took seat in 15E on my Alaska flight, the fact that I was in an uncomfortable middle seat was assuaged by a new feeling, a feeling that the revolution had started, that the political, the cultural, and the technological pieces had come together, and that we were finally on our way. At that moment, as the plane took off, so did my sense of boundless optimism.

Houston, we have liftoff.

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Jay Inslee represents the First District of the State of Washington (Seattle area) in the United States House of Representatives. He is the co-author of Apollo's Fire: Igniting America's Clean Energy Economy.