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A high-speed railway system and a boom in wind power are among the innovations former Obama adviser Howard Learner expects to see over the next few years.

Howard Learner

It’s not easy being green

The economic downturn is making it difficult for companies to invest in green technology. But a former Obama adviser tells Kellogg students the world can’t wait

By Rachel Farrell

4/6/2009 - Howard Learner knows the recession is convincing some companies to postpone investments in green technology.

“But when times are tight, can we really afford to waste energy?” he asked on March 31, addressing Kellogg students in a standing-room-only classroom in the Donald P. Jacobs Center. “Climate change isn’t like TIVO. We can’t hit the pause button and wait until the economy gets better to deal with it.”

Learner is the founder, president and executive director of the Environmental Law and Policy Center, a Midwest-based environmental legal advocacy and eco-business innovation organization. As the former senior environment and energy adviser to the Obama campaign, Learner is particularly attuned to how the new administration is approaching environmental issues.

Of the $787 billion economic stimulus plan, about $100 billion has been designated for renewable energy and green jobs, Learner said. He predicts that during the next six months, the Obama administration will make a serious investment in high-speed railway technology in particular. “Obama is to high-speed rail what Eisenhower was to the interstate system,” he said. “It is his number-one priority.”

A high-speed railway system will benefit the nation in four primary areas, Learner said. First, it will reduce the cost of travel while producing less pollution. Second, it will pull people and businesses into city centers, which will encourage business transactions. Third, it will create jobs and spur economic growth, since train stations tend to serve as hubs of development. Fourth, it will provide the focal point for Obama’s 2012 re-election campaign, which Learner predicts will feature a “whistle stop tour.”

Learner also predicted a boom in wind power during the next six months, with the Midwest leading the charge. “Midwest manufacturers are having a renaissance in terms of wind manufacturing,” he said. For example, Illinois is building a wind power system that will produce 6,000 megawatts, “which is enough energy to power a couple million homes.”

Despite the fact that “energy, environment, economy and national security have converged” in the last five years, Learner isn’t surprised that some people are slow to adopt green technology because of its costs. He noted that when seatbelts were invented, the auto industry said they were too expensive to implement. Of course, “the cost was less than expected,” he said. “You find cheaper ways to make it over time.”

But that’s beside the point. Green technology creates jobs, spurs economic growth and is good for the environment, Learner said. “This ought to be the no-brainer of our times.”