J. Scott Applewhite/AP
General Electric CEO Jeff Immelt (left) is President Barack Obama’s point man on U.S. job creation.
As chairman and CEO of the one of world's largest and most important businesses, Jeffrey Immelt of General Electric Co. has placed a bet big on the clean energy movement.
In 2004, he noted, GE had 17 "green" products that accounted for about $5 billion in sales. Last year, the conglomerate was offering 100 items that generated about $20 billion in revenue.
At the same time, the company has applied its know-how about energy savings to cut the operating costs of its own factories and offices.
"So for GE, in many ways the environmental movement has turned out to be profitable for our investors," Immelt said Thursday night at a fundraiser at the College of Charleston.
His only regret: The industry in the United States has been held back, partly because early on it oversold the notion of pollution reduction instead of touting the jobs and other economic benefits the business would generate.
"Maybe what we can do is rip up some of the old vocabulary and start again," he said.
If he had to do it over, Immelt said: "I would talk about energy-efficiency. I would talk about energy security. I would talk about job creation and, as a by-product of that, pollution reduction."
"Unfortunately, in the U.S. today, the whole thrust toward clean energy investing has been cast as an elitist activity, one that's only good for people in New York City or Los Angeles, but not one that's good for the working men and women of this country," he continued. "That's wrong, but sometimes perception is reality."
Immelt, who recently was appointed President Barack Obama's go-to guy on job creation and economic competitiveness, chided lawmakers on Capitol Hill who are trying to save the old-fashioned light bulb, an industry that GE pioneered and thrived on for decades. "We actually have a legal movement going on in Congress to bring back the incandescent light bulb, which is a 110-year-old technology," he said.
Immelt suggested the effort would do little to help the U.S. economy, saying that business is now largely dominated by "2,000 factories in China."
"So it has nothing to do with technical excellence. It has nothing to do energy- efficiency. It's a step backwards," he said.
Immelt said the emphasis needs to be on making the U.S. the world leader in developing new energy-efficient goods. The jobs will follow, he said.
"Technology rules. ... If we can just get this technology from the universities and the businesses into the marketplace, this could be a big export industry in the future," he said.
Immelt, a frequent visitor to the Lowcountry who owns a home on Kiawah Island, said the Charleston area already is reaping economic gains from the green movement, citing the Boeing 778 Dreamliner plant. He called that investment "a testament to energy-efficiency" because the new lightweight jets burn 20 percent less fuel than what's available now.
"The reason Boeing decided to take that kind of risk was to drive more fuel efficiency," he said. "And it's big winner."
The country also is in desperate need of a clear energy policy from the government to encourage new investment, spur innovation and create U.S. jobs, Immelt said.
"People want certainty. ... This is not communism creeping into your system, It's way to create some certainty in our energy space so we have a chance to lead."
Lest anyone be mistaken, Immelt stressed that he's no hard-core environmentalist.
"I never camped," he said, drawing a big laugh from the audience of about 200 supporters of the College of Charleston Friends of the Library Winthrop Roundtable. "I am a business person. I am an applied math major. I'm a capitalist."
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