Former Iowa governor Chet Culver discusses the future of energy and education

2011 Iowa Teacher of the YearCourtesy of Iowa Department of Education
Governor Chet Culver (right) is advocating for widespread use of renewable energy.

BY
MANAGING NEWS EDITOR

Last week, former Iowa governor Chet Culver visited campus, hosted by the Biden Institute. As governor, Culver’s agenda focused on renewable energy — specifically wind energy — and he has since advanced renewable energy interests through his energy sector consulting firm, The Chet Culver Group. While on campus, Culver met with student leaders and university officials, with a particular focus on renewable energy in Delaware.

Q: Before, during and after your service as governor, renewable energy has always been a chief item on your agenda. What’s behind that interest?

A: The reason energy has always been a focus for me, as a private citizen now and a public servant previously in Iowa, is because it’s arguably the most important issue that our country is facing — energy security, our energy future. It’s critical to our success, to kind of get a handle on securing the future. I knew growing up in the Midwest and spending time in Iowa that we’ve always looked for value-added agriculture in Iowa … I thought and really firmly believe that if we could build that infrastructure and build wind farms across Iowa, we could secure our energy future, which would be a great thing for the citizens of Iowa, and for the country. Now I’m working in the private sector to encourage other states, like Delaware, to try to do the same thing.

Q: In Delaware, what are the renewable energy opportunities and advantages you see, both at the research level here at the university, and at the policy level?

A: First of all, I commend the faculty, the staff here, the private sector individuals that have been working on energy issues in Delaware, particularly with offshore wind. The new governor and his team are going to be key players in this offshore wind opportunity. I think what I’ve encouraged states to do is look at the opportunities you have. Here in Delaware, for example, offshore is obviously one … There might be, in some places, some land-based wind opportunities. Energy efficiency is another area of opportunity, in terms of retrofitting homes, buildings, commercial space and college campuses. With all of those opportunities, they involve making and potentially manufacturing products. Someone has to provide all of the LED lights, all of the insulation with respect to energy efficiency … Delaware has a great port here, maybe it could become a distribution hub to move those products throughout the state and region. That’s what we did in Iowa. We became a major manufacturing hub for towers, turbines and blades, not only for the state of Iowa but for a 500-mile radius around Des Moines, IA where the wind turbines and wind farms are being installed.

Q: As you just explained, this field of renewable energy involves work in both the private and public sectors. For current college students entering the job market in the next several years, is this a market that you see as limited, or one that’s expanding? Does it involve a diverse array of educational backgrounds, or do only certain ones qualify?

A: I think it’s one of the most exciting sectors of our economy, and it’s providing as much, if not more, opportunity for jobs and careers compared to any other sector. For example, in Iowa we now have 9,000 green jobs that are supporting the wind energy sector. And the nice thing about those jobs is we need entrepreneurs that are making the smaller component parts — the washers and all of the 900 pieces of a turbine. We have 75 small businesses in Iowa that are making those component parts that go to the turbine manufacturer. Whether you’re an entrepreneur, or if you want to be a wind tech, servicing the turbine and making $75,000 per year, we need workers to help make the fiberglass blades in the factor. We need CEOs and vice presidents of finance to run the facilities, we need marketing and communications people. Of the 9,000 wind and energy jobs in Iowa, we have everything from a CEO running the plant to a wind tech making sure those wind towers are functioning properly … As you can tell, I’m pretty excited about it.

Q: In regards to your service as governor, the Associated Press once said you “bet much of your political future on renewable energy.” The quote reveals, as I’m sure you know, that in mainstream politics, energy is a partisan issue. Is it a topic that you think really is, or needs to be, a partisan issue? Have you noticed if this outlook remains the same among current college students, or if it’s becoming a more bipartisan matter?

A: One of the most important reasons why Iowa has made so much progress in wind energy in particular is because it hasn’t been a partisan issue. In fact, for a couple of years now, we have been the only state where our Congressional delegation in Washington D.C., so in our case four members of Congress and two senators, all voted in favor of the wind production tax credits, which is a federal program to help support the wind sector. It’s the only state in the whole country where the entire delegation voted together. Thanks to Vice President Biden and President Obama, we had those tax credits in place. So that federal policy is really important, and today we’re continuing to fight for it, and I’m pretty hopeful. In fact, I was just in Washington this week talking to some policymakers, about the importance of those 9,000 jobs in Iowa. So I think it’s up to the next generation of Americans to not let it become a partisan issue, and to continue to fight for these jobs of the future. Who wants to pay a $500 per month utility bill when you graduate from the University of Delaware and go to get your first job? That’s becoming more than a car payment. It’s becoming, potentially, a second mortgage, if we don’t do something to secure our future.

Q: Consistent with higher ed across the nation, state financial contributions at the university remain relatively low. This puts financial strains on the ability to conduct research, particularly with sources such as federal grants becoming more precarious. What challenges does this pose, and how would you address this? Why should, or shouldn’t, states contribute more and prioritize higher ed?

A: It’s a national challenge right now, and we’re seeing the same thing happening in Iowa. And I think the future leaders need to demand that education continue to be a priority when it comes to local, state and federal funding. That’s another reason to get involved in public policy, to make sure you vote and support those who are running for office at every level that value education. And frankly, we’ve kind of gotten away from that. It’s a challenge, but, again, not one that we can’t overcome. We’ve had some very generous private sector involvement in terms of funding, certainly here at the University of Delaware. Revving up the economy and providing more jobs will help fill back some of the funding that we need for education. That’s why what’s happening here at the Biden Institute is so important. We’re not just concerned about challenges that the economy or workforce is facing today, but we’re talking about 20 years out. Arguably the most important thing we can do is continue to invest in education … We need to keep pressing, we need strong leaders, we need young leadership on making sure that we have the funding that we need for our kids, teachers and schools. It will happen if people continue to demand it’s a priority.

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