3/9/16 – Guest Column: Illinois Coal Association column was incendiary

Kevin Johnson

March 9, 2016

As a U.S. Army veteran of the War in Iraq, I am drawn to any reference to the “global war on terrorism,” “friendly fire,” or “war casualties”— and, like my fellow war veterans, am disheartened to hear such concepts thrown around carelessly.

I, therefore, was greatly disappointed by the recent opinion piece penned by Phil Gonet of the Illinois Coal Association (“Coal industry offers an opposing view on clean air initiatives,” Southern Business Journal, March 1, 2016) in which Mr. Gonet callously throws around these terms in an effort to mask a factually dubious attack on renewable energy.

Mr. Gonet has every right to try to make an argument on the merits of government policies, such as the Clean Power Plan. However, his claim that the administration’s so-called “war on coal is bigger than its war on terror”—or, worse, the economic impact of such policies is akin to “friendly fire”— dishonors veterans and their families.

His overly-heated rhetoric aside, Mr. Gonet does a further disservice to his readers by ignoring many fundamental facts about the policies that he attempts to discredit. Despite Mr. Gonet’s attempt to blame the Clean Power Plan for negative trends in the coal industry, what has truly hastened coal plant retirements is not any set of U.S. government policies—instead, these changes are largely the result of current market forces, import taxes imposed by China on Illinois coal, and competition from more affordable, clean energy and cheap natural gas. Renewable energy, such as solar and wind, are producing power at record low prices, driven by advances in technology and increasing demand, which have created a larger, more competitive manufacturing base turning out ever more efficient wind turbines and solar panels.

He also ignores the fact that the Clean Power Plan gives states maximum flexibility to create their own strategies for cutting carbon pollution. For Illinois, that means that we could adopt policies such as the bipartisan Illinois Clean Jobs Bill, which would boost both renewables and energy efficiency to create 32,000 jobs in every part of the state, including in communities which Mr. Gonet purports to represent.

Mr. Gonet might be interested to know that among the biggest advocates for action on climate is the Department of Defense, which has called climate change a “threat multiplier” as increasingly severe weather events demand bigger humanitarian responses at home and abroad, while droughts and resource shortages fan the flames of extremism in unstable parts of the world. All of this puts our military personnel at greater risk.

As the nation’s largest user of energy, the Pentagon also has learned what consumers realize: clean energy is cheaper. At Ford Hood in Texas, a new solar array and wind farm will save the Army $168 million of taxpayers’ money.

For those who have served our country, the clean energy industry has opened up opportunities to leverage the technical skills and leadership gained while in uniform, in turn rewarding companies that seek out these talented of men and women. Today, 17,000 Veterans—almost 10% of the total number of employees—work in the solar industry, and the Solar Energy Industries Association has committed to employing 50,000 Veterans in the field by 2020. I am proud to have co-founded my company, CleanCapital, alongside a fellow combat Veteran.

As an Army captain, I learned the value of communicating a clear mission to the troops who served with me. Right now, Illinois’ mission should be to create jobs, attract investment and improve public health in every part of the state– and our strategy must include a confident embrace of a clean energy future.

Kevin Johnson is the Chief Commercial Officer and co-founder of CleanCapital, a financial technology company that makes it easy to invest in clean energy. He served in the U.S. Army, was deployed to Iraq in 2004 with the 1st Battalion, 33rd Field Artillery Regimen, and is a Fellow with the Truman National Security Project and a previous Emerging Leader at The Chicago Council on Global Affairs.