Preparing for More Change

John G. Swanson
October 1, 2009
COLUMN : Opening Remarks

This past September, Accu-Weld, a window and door manufacturer based in Bensalem, Pa., hosted a White House Clean Energy Forum featuring Energy Secretary Stephen Chu, as well as Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell and Delaware Governor Jack Markell. The event was part of the Obama Administration’s campaign to pass climate change or cap-and-trade legislation.

Accu-Weld was selected to host the event because much of the talk at the event focused on the potential for millions of green jobs. The company had been on the verge of closing earlier this year, but it is still making windows. Under new ownership, it still employs about 140 people. Administration officials, and Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell, credited tax credits included in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, in part, for Accu-Weld's survival. Further government efforts to boost “clean energy sources” will create more jobs, they argue.

Steps to increase energy efficiency, such as high performance windows, represent "the low-hanging fruit" in transforming the U.S. economy, Chu said. "The opportunities are staggering," he asserted, discussing the potential for energy savings available in homes and buildings. “We’re not talking years, we’re talking decades,” he added, assessing the work to be done.

The event covered much more than windows and energy efficiency, and what struck me was the enthusiasm of attendees from other “clean energy” industries for Chu’s message, as well as the views expressed by governors Rendell and Markell. In a question-and-answer session, representatives of companies involved in bio-fuels, battery technology, and solar, wind and hydro power, stood up and thanked the government officials for what they were doing and asked them to do even more.

As a theoretical beneficiary of government policies to transform the U.S. to a “clean energy” economy, it might seem logical that the window and door industry would also be pushing for more as well. That has rarely been the case, however. The overwhelming majority of window and door executives I talk to express tremendous skepticism about most government action.

The battle over health care legislation suggests the Obama Administration may not get everything it wants, but it will make change. We may not see a far-reaching climate change bill, but our industry will see more legislation and more stringent energy requirements. Looking 20 years into the future, Secretary Chu notes, energy prices will be significantly higher. There may not be a lot of agreement on what should be done related to greenhouse gas emissions, but conservatives and liberals in Washington do agree that energy independence is an increasingly important national security issue that needs to be on the agenda.

By coming to Accu-Weld, Secretary Chu was trying to show how a transformation to greener, cleaner economy represents "the basis of our new prosperity." Window and door executives probably wouldn’t argue with that. The question, however, involves Chu’s view that government should play a significantly larger role in our industry, among others, to spur that transformation. DOE, for example, is looking for homes and buildings to be 70 to 80 percent more efficient than they are today, Chu stated, adding, "that's before you put on any solar panels."

In making his argument for the changes to be made, Chu pointed to Wayne Gretzky. When asked what the key to his success as a hockey player, Gretzky said it was because he didn’t skate to where the puck is, he skated to where the puck was going to be. The U.S. needs to push for a “clean energy economy,” Chu stated, because "we need to skate to where the puck is going to be."

As an industry, we’ve changed our products dramatically over the past few decades and most of us make and/or sell significantly more energy efficient products than we have in the past. We all know we can’t rest on our laurels. Whether we agree with Chu or not, we should pay attention to his words, as an industry and as individual companies. We certainly should lobby and argue for what we think is right, but we must recognize that even if we don’t like what’s happening all the time, the energy efficiency puck is probably going to be moving faster than has in the past.