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09.24.08

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Phaedra

Photograph by Felipe Buitrago
GREEN GIANT: Steve Westly has been mixing clean technology and politics for 30 years. Today he chairs the California Obama campaign, sits on the board of Tesla Motors and is honorary national co-chairman of Clean Tech for Obama.

Political Power Grid

Silicon Valley–based Clean Tech for Obama spreads its message—and money

By Erin Sherbert


IT WAS late February, in the heat of the presidential primaries. Four Silicon Valley techies sat in the Ritz Carlton in San Francisco talking about their two favorite topics: politics and renewable energy. That brief and casual conversation resulted in what has become Silicon Valley's latest startup: the committee known as Clean Tech and Green Business Leaders for Obama.

This well-organized and richly endowed organization represents the first time the green-tech movement has carved out a political voice in the presidential elections. Until now, the issues surrounding sustainable technologies have sat on the political sidelines, but the confluence of high fuel prices, concern over climate change and energy security has pushed this topic to the forefront of national debate.

Fueled by this growing passion, Clean Tech for Obama quickly attracted support. Money began rolling in from Silicon Valley and beyond. Steve Westly, the longtime green technology leader, former state controller, and California chair of the Obama campaign signed on as honorary co-chair.

It was only natural that this political organization be born in the Bay Area—Silicon Valley has quickly emerged as the capital of clean energy investment and innovation (see Cover Story, page 26). Yet the movement has quickly spread across the nation, with green leaders in New York, Oregon and even Texas (a big wind energy producer) hosting events and raising money for Obama.

They've moved this mission with impressive momentum, collecting more than $600,000 in less than nine weeks. But their point isn't just to raise money for Obama, who they feel has an aggressive stance on renewable energy. Clean tech leaders view this as their chance at gaining political clout at the federal level.

"It's been surprisingly easy," says Jeff Anderson, who co-chairs Clean Tech for Obama. "This is the first time in history this economic community has been at critical mass to get organized."


Power Cells

In the organization's small donated space along Market Street in San Francisco, there is always at least one person there to man the phones and talk to volunteers who drop by. But it's outside the office where members are getting things done.

Sanjay Wagle juggles his full-time job as a principal at a clean-tech investment firm and his position as the co-founder of Clean Tech for Obama.

Wagle spends his evenings and weekends making phone calls, sending emails, connecting with other clean-tech leaders across the nation who want to host fundraisers and events. It's nothing like when he volunteered for the Kerry campaign in 2004, when clean tech was a nascent industry hardly on the radar of a presidential candidate.

"Energy and the environment were an issue back then, but it was a top 10 issue," Wagle says. "This year it's a top three, maybe even the number-one issue facing the country."

Members attribute much of that to how California has responded to the threat of global warming over the last two years. After Gov. Schwarzenegger signed A.B. 32, a groundbreaking global warming bill back in 2006, policymakers up and down the state started considering their own energy policies. (San Jose has been among the leaders, with Mayor Chuck Reed making it the centerpiece issue of his administration.)

Meanwhile, the idea has spread beyond California's borders. Both presidential candidates have staked out opposing positions on energy policy. Republican nominee Sen. John McCain is unapologetic about his plans for more domestic drilling and building more nuclear power plants, even as he voices support for alternative energy. Local clean-tech leaders say Obama's policies would go much farther in advancing the renewable-energy cause. While he recently shifted his position on offshore drilling, he has been strongly advocating alternative energy policies, such as ensuring that 25 percent of America's energy comes from renewable sources by 2025.

"The general idea is to have an aggressive effort to reshape the national energy priorities," Wagle says.


Growth Industry

Clean Tech for Obama never had plans for $1,000-plate dinners or fancy events. In fact, they weren't expecting to accomplish much more than draw in a few hundred supporters and raise maybe a few hundred thousand dollars.

The group's members are shaken by their own smooth success, having only been around since mid-July.

More than 500 people have signed onto the campaign and they have reached out to some 2,000 people through fundraisers and other events. By Election Day, they expect to have spread Obama's energy message to 10,000 people across the country. Right now, they are hitting swing states hard, including Nevada and Colorado.

On the fundraising side, the group has outdone itself. They collected $300,000 when Obama made an appearance in San Francisco for an event last month. (That event brought in more than $7 million for the campaign.)

Now, they are confident they can hit the $3 million mark by Election Day.

"It has actually been shocking how quickly this organization has grown," said Mark Liffmann, an employee at Silicon Valley's SunPower solar company and a member of Clean Tech for Obama. "The clean-tech message is one that resonates with people right now."

A McCain supporter in previous elections, Liffmann this year made the switch to Obama, saying he is the candidate who "gets it" when it comes to advancing renewable energy. He criticizes McCain for being absent on key renewable energy votes this past year, including the renewal for the solar and wind tax credits.

"They understand clean tech is one of the few bright spots in the economy," Liffmann says of the Obama campaign. Like other clean techies across the nation, Liffmann is planning a debate-watching party at his place where folks are encouraged to donate whatever they can to the Obama campaign. Other upcoming events across the nation include a webcast event with former Vice President Al Gore.

One of their biggest upcoming events is a nationwide "house party" where members are asking as many as 300 homeowners across the United States to host a party on the same night with the theme being "Building a New Energy Economy."

"These aren't people who are hard-core political activists," Wagle says. "These are people who have never gone to a convention before. What's amazing is to see how much time and effort people are willing to spend on this."


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