Jay Inslee.

Last Friday, I visited Washington state’s first certified solar PV manufacturing plant with Rep. Jay Inslee (D), who in June declared that he’s running for governor in 2012. Inslee, who has represented Washington’s 1st District for 12 years, is one of Congress’s few true clean energy enthusiasts; he even co-wrote a book on the topic, Apollo’s Fire: Igniting America’s Clean Energy Economy.

At the Silicon Energy plant, he kept interrupting the company president’s presentation with questions. Are those single-junction or multi-junction cells? Is the glass fused? Where do the parts come from? How is the state’s production tax credit working? Not surprisingly, the visit ran long, setting Inslee up to be late for his next engagement. As his political aide waited by the door while Inslee asked “one more question,” she rolled her eyes at me. “It’s always like this,” she said. “He gets so interested in everything.”

I got the chance to explore Inslee’s interests on the hour-long drive from Seattle to the plant during a wide-ranging conversation that touched on national and state issues, from Solyndra to the Keystone XL pipeline, proposed coal ports in Washington, and the Seattle mega-tunnel.

(Full disclosure: Inslee is my representative, though I don’t blame him for the lack of sidewalks in my neighborhood, ahem.)

The race for Washington governor, pitting Inslee against state Attorney General Rob McKenna, promises to be long, contentious, and whisker-close. (The 2004 gubernatorial race between Democrat Christine Gregoire and Republican Dino Rossi was one of the closest in U.S. history.) Inslee’s campaign is already underway, though it has not fully ramped up; for now, it’s a fairly modest affair. There was no fleet of black SUVs shuttling us north, just the two of us in a Honda Fit driven by a staffer. As you would expect from a candidate running for higher office, Inslee was cautious about making official proposals or recommendations on controversial issues, but in describing his general thinking, his inclinations were clear enough.

Take the proposed Keystone XL pipeline. He didn’t sign on to Rep. Henry Waxman’s letter expressing concern over lobbyist influence on the approval process and in that regard would say only that he and everyone on the House Energy and Commerce Committee want to insure that the “best science” is used in deciding how to proceed. But as a general matter, he offered this:

We don’t want to “bake in” infrastructure that dooms us to a no-coral-reefs future for our grandkids. At some point, if you make investments in multi-decadal dirty-fuel infrastructure, it undercuts your ability to finance clean fuels, and you don’t want to do that. On the other hand, nobody’s advocating shutting down the pumps at the service station either. So where’s the sweet spot? I don’t know the answer to that, but that’s the challenge.

A somewhat similar set of decisions is facing the state of Washington, where two massive coal ports have been proposed to ship coal from the Powder River Basin in Wyoming and Montana to China, one through Longview, south of Seattle along the Columbia River, another at Cherry Point near Bellingham, along Washington’s northern coast. Environmentalists are heavily opposed; proponents, predictably, cite the jobs that would be created.

Jay Inslee with solar panel.Inslee at the solar PV manufacturing plant.Photo: David RobertsHere again, Inslee refused to take an official position — “I’m still listening to a lot of people” — but in discussing the issue, he offered a few interesting lines of thought on the larger employment and environmental implications of the decisions. He emphasized that as governor his first priority would be boosting economic development and job opportunities in the state. Clearly the port projects would create “some short-term jobs in construction and long-term jobs in operation,” he said.

But, he added, not all the economic ramifications of a development like a coal port are obvious. “What is the impact on local economies of [coal] trains going through every hour and a half?” he asked. Bellingham, for instance, is planning major redevelopment on its waterfront. How would a massive port, with dozens of trains arriving every day, belching noise and coal dust, affect that development, those jobs? “It’s worthy of thinking about,” he said.

Also worthy of consideration, he added, are the effects on manufacturing competitiveness. If the U.S. exports coal to China, he said, “they’ll use it to produce airplanes that compete with Boeing. I’ve got 80,000 people making airplanes here competing with 80,000 Chinese. Shipping them cheap, dirty electricity to subsidize their cheap airplanes may not be the best manufacturing strategy for the United States.”

By the time he’d gotten wound up, he sounded a bit less equivocal about the whole thing:

When we reduce the price of dirty electricity in China, we do two things: We subsidize their exports to us, making us less competitive, and we make it less likely that they’ll develop cleaner sources of energy. They get cheap electricity, we get pollution.

In regard to both Keystone XL and the coal ports, he lamented that “arguing about local siting decisions as a way to have a national energy policy is really frustrating and sad.”

Speaking of competing with China, what did he think about the dumping case that U.S. solar manufacturers are trying to launch against the Chinese? While Inslee declined to take a position on the merits of the case until he learns more, he said that based on what he knows, “I would be highly suspicious if there’s not a violation of our agreements regarding selling below cost.”

However, “it’s easy to be angry at the other guy, but it’s our fault.”

We’ve unilaterally disarmed in the race for a clean energy economy and we’re getting our clock cleaned as a result. Shame on us that we’re not in this game. Shame on us that we don’t have feed-in tariffs like Germany does, that we don’t have a limitation on carbon like China does, that we haven’t subsidized, except at a minimal amount, solar production in this country.

What does he think about Solyndra? Innovation is risky by nature, he said. “If you’re not suffering losses” when investing in cutting-edge companies, “then the program is probably ineffective.” Why has the media given Solyndra such absurdly disproportionate coverage? One thing he’s learned in Washington, Inslee said, is that “you can’t overstate the interconnectedness of the fossil fuel industry with corporate boards and equity holders of major media outlets.”

What of those who that say government shouldn’t be in the business of “picking winners” at all? The people who criticize industrial policy, Inslee says, “are the same ones who refuse to allow market forces to pick the winners. The market works when you have costs imposed on externalities,” which means some kind of cap on carbon pollution or price on carbon emissions. “Good, all-American, red-blooded capitalists should let the market work,” he said, but “the GOP has abandoned all logic when it comes to the third[*] law of thermodynamics.” That leaves no choice but to pursue other policies like tax credits and loan guarantees.

Several times, Inslee mentioned his support for improved public transportation, so I asked him about one of the most contentious issues in recent Seattle history: the proposed mega-tunnel that would burrow beneath downtown, replacing an aging, earthquake-vulnerable viaduct that’s part of state highway 99. Sustainable urbanists and transit activists fought against the tunnel plan for years, arguing that the viaduct’s traffic could be routed onto public transit and surface streets, but they were ultimately overwhelmed by the greater money and political access of the car-and-road coalition.

Inslee with a new inverter that Silicon Energy is developing. Photo: David Roberts

In the end, Inslee backed the tunnel, but he didn’t sound all that enthused about it:

I supported moving forward with the tunnel, and the reason I did was, we have to make decisions in our community if we’re ever going to move forward. And we made a decision. To halt a project when it’s under construction and we’ve reached a large consensus … I just didn’t think that was consistent with moving forward. We’ve got to move the state forward.

“Is that the design I would have picked?” he asked ruefully. “Maybe not.”

As we neared the Silicon Energy plant — which makes durable solar panels from parts sourced, to the extent possible, from in-state suppliers — Inslee talked about his plans to prepare Washington state for a clean energy future. He wants to align the state’s research institutions around clean energy, “decouple” utilities so they can better pursue energy efficiency, and accelerate electrification of the state’s vehicle fleet.

And then we arrived, and Inslee was off. “Hey, I knew your father-in-law in high school! How long have you worked here? Is that a picture of your panels? …” And I never got another word in edgewise.

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* Clearly Inslee intended to refer to the second law of thermodynamics here, though he did note at another point that the GOP had abandoned all three laws … and evolution to boot.