Kevin de Léon: Valley Is Poised for Green Energy Economic Boom

California’s great middle is a land set apart. No valley is more vast, no soil is more fertile, and tragically, no air is more polluted.

As a landscape of paradox, the San Joaquin Valley is a region where poverty and bounty sit side by side. This situation has been aggravated by state and federal investments that have historically focused elsewhere. The unique challenges of the Valley have been too often overlooked in Sacramento and Washington.

When I look at California’s increasingly post-industrial economy, renewable energy and clean technology are not simply smart for the environment, they are currently the fastest growing job sectors and I cannot help but see a giant opportunity for cities in the Valley.

Clean technology companies in California are creating more jobs and investing more money than competitors in any other state. We need to make sure this economic boom reaches the Valley.

Right now, Kern County is home to the largest wind power farm in the nation, the Alta Wind Energy Center at the Tehachapi Pass, contributing $1.2 billion to Kern’s economy. These kinds of projects create jobs here, bring revenue here, and they are not going anywhere.

Hundreds of millions of dollars from our “cap and trade” system are also being targeted for investment in disproportionately impacted communities, specifically going to many communities dealing with pollution in the Valley starting this year.

Two years ago, I authored a measure that became state law and requires at least 25% of the pollution fees paid by companies go toward these areas. For the first time, the California Environmental Protection Agency is mapping out precise neighborhoods so that new jobs and cleaner air can rise exactly where they are needed most.

Jobs in a green economy — installing solar panels, retrofitting buildings for energy efficiency, manufacturing wind turbines and water filtration systems or assisting in these companies’ offices — are solidly middle class and do not require advanced college degrees.

What they demand are ingenuity and hard work — the stock in trade of a valley that gets up before the sun, heads to farm fields with the latest advances in technology and out-produces the world.

This isn’t politics of the left or right. A decade ago, when California decided to become a world leader in reducing greenhouse gas emissions, it was the Legislature working with Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger who set goals many thought could not be attained.

As a result, scores of new companies in every part of the state, jump-started by the spark of public and private investment, are now bringing clean power to our energy grid.

Rather that wield a coercive stick, California also decided to let utilities and businesses meet in the marketplace of “cap and trade.” The first quarterly auction of the pollution allowances they traded has raised nearly $300 million — funds that California must now invest wisely.

As leader of the State Senate, I will make it a priority that a considerable chunk of the money goes to where it was intended to go — to cities up and down Highway 99 — and that dollars will be spent on projects that truly clean the environment and create real jobs.

To help build on the momentum of the quickly-expanding green sector of our economy, several colleagues and I recently unveiled a package of bills that commits our state to standing at the vanguard of combating climate change.

One of the bills, SB 350, raises the renewable energy goal to 50%, and does the same with increasing energy efficiency in buildings and reducing petroleum use. These 50-50-50 targets for 2030 might strike critics, especially those in the fossil-fuel industry, as nothing more than California Dreamin’.

The Golden State has continually proven these cynics wrong. Our businesses possess the innovative and pioneering spirit that always advances our lead in building the economy of tomorrow.

California’s ability to see and touch the future explains why automakers first began producing cars with ever increasing gas mileage, and how the sun and wind were first harnessed on a large scale for power. Our groundbreaking past is not only a rich tradition but our future calling.

And so we lead the way in producing fruits and nuts and tomatoes and milk and now clean-energy innovation, too. California isn’t the nation’s great exception. California is the nation before the rest of the nation figures it out.