China Syndrome

By DAVID S. BERNSTEIN  |  March 18, 2011

In an administration notable for its lack of star power outside the corner office, Patrick's choice of Bowles for that post was a striking exception. Unlike previous governors, who occasionally hired, or developed, cabinet secretaries with well-known names and political ambitions — Charlie Baker under Bill Weld, for example — Patrick has preferred more obscure and less spotlight-seeking managers.

Bowles, by contrast, previously worked in the Bill Clinton White House, led the MassInc think tank, and ran for Congress. Rumors of White House appointments and political-campaign plans have been almost as frequent for Bowles as for Patrick — and some in the administration suggest that those rumors are stoked by Bowles himself.

In short, Bowles has been seen as the one independent political star, and the one competing political ego, countenanced by Patrick.

It has paid off, as even some of his critics concede. Bowles helped shepherd several truly historic bills to passage, including the Global Warming Solutions Act and the Green Communities Act, and went on to implement the complex regulatory details required to turn them into reality.

He also worked closely with Congressman Ed Markey and Senator John Kerry on their bills, which aimed to start the national clean-energy effort. Markey and Kerry crafted bills that "would have not superseded what Massachusetts is doing, but brought everybody else up to our standards," Bowles says.

The legislation — popularly tagged as "cap-and-trade" — passed in the US House, but ultimately died in the Senate. Now, with the warming-denial Republicans in control of the House, the odds are heavily against anything happening.


WORLD WON'T WAIT

That federal inaction will actually allow Massachusetts to get even further ahead of the rest of the states, which could mean that when, eventually, the federal government comes around on clean energy, Massachusetts companies could have the market cornered on the industry.

Unfortunately for us, the rest of the world isn't waiting.

As Bowles points out ruefully, during the two years he spent working with Markey on the federal legislation, the Chinese government was pouring hundreds of billions of dollars into creating an entire clean-energy industry from scrap. Six years ago, Bowles says, China produced no solar panels; today it sells one-third of the world's total. Wind turbines are a similar story. Germany and other European countries are also moving fast.

"All our main competitors as a nation are making huge investments," Bowles says, "while we have retreated back into a debate about the science of climate change."

The pace of the market has taken him aback, he says. He used to believe that only a market-driven solution — including the enormous US energy market — could propel the development and maturation of new clean-energy industries, the way demand made computing power better and cheaper. But the enormity of the top-down Chinese approach "is doing the work I thought only we could do," he says — as evidenced by the per-watt cost of solar panels dropping by more than half in just the past couple of years.

Bowles sees one remaining question that might make or break the success of the Massachusetts clean-energy industry — and with it, in large part, the economic future of the commonwealth.

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