As the energy industry grows, American companies need to develop their natural gas, solar and nuclear energy technologies, Jeffrey Immelt ’78 said Thursday in the penultimate lecture of the Leading Voices in Politics and Policy summer lecture series. Immelt is currently Chief Executive Officer of General Electric, serves as chairperson of President Barack Obama’s Council on Jobs and Competitiveness and sits on the College’s Board of Trustees.
Immelt encouraged the U.S. government to establish clearly defined policies regarding energy and the environment without allowing regulation and bureaucracy to slow growth.
Despite the current lack of “appetite” for discussing broad energy policies in the United States, the country needs to focus on a legislative agenda for energy policy in order to compete with Europe, China and India, Immelt said.
Although Immelt said he recognized the important role of the Environmental Protection Agency, he said wanted to see the EPA and other government agencies held accountable for their policies. Immelt said the long and arduous permit process can delay projects for years, limiting economic growth and job creation.
“The role of the regulator is to make it safe,” he said. “It’s not to flip an on or off switch.”
Immelt described himself as a capitalist who supports free markets, and said that the government will always play a role in energy markets.
“At no time and in no country has energy ever been a true free market,” he said.
Government regulation, taxation and investment all affect the energy industry, impacting which technologies gain support, Immelt said. He used nuclear power as an example of an industry that will need government support to develop further, particularly following the recent nuclear meltdown of the Fukushima reactor in Japan.
“If nuclear ever comes back in the U.S., it will only be because the government wants it to,” Immelt said.
It is important not to pick a favorite energy technology, he said, but rather to see which succeed. Despite the recent concerns about nuclear energy following the disaster in Japan, he said he will “see where nuclear goes” but thinks it is “a technology for the long-term.”
Energy policy should focus on energy security and investing in clean technologies, he said. Immelt added that he does not approach investing in clean energy from an ideological or environmentalism standpoint, but instead came to the conclusion on his own that global warming is occurring and is influenced by human activity following his own study of scientific data.
The country needs to address the issue of global warming from a practical standpoint rather than continuing to discuss the problem as a burden that the country should address for moral concerns, he said.
“The reason why the country has not gelled towards change in clean energy is because it’s viewed as elitist, because it’s viewed as a rich person’s thought,” he said. “It’s viewed as a fancy problem, and none of us have done a good enough job of making it real, of making it work, of talking about how it creates jobs.”
The energy industry plays a major role in job creation, so investing in energy has the potential to create hundreds of thousands of jobs in the United States, he said. He challenged the notion that GE’s exportation of energy and aviation technologies was giving away American jobs to workers in other countries. Almost all of GE’s aviation technology and its major energy technologies are manufactured in the United States and then exported, which creates jobs in the United States, he said.
He also discussed some of the ideas that have emerged in conversations among the members of the President’s Council on Jobs and Competitiveness, including the development of infrastructure, prioritization of job training and retraining and reformation of the regulation permit cycle to avoid slowing growth.
In the long term, Immelt said the country “needs to get its mojo back” and build up competitiveness by improving education, particularly in math and science.
Although the Moore Theater was packed with community members, faculty and students, several members of the Dartmouth community were not pleased by the selection of Immelt as a Leading Voice speaker and staged a skit they deemed a “tragicomedy” to protest Immelt and the other series speaker selections. A handmade banner sprawled across the grass outside of the Hopkins Center for the Arts posed the question, “What does a good life’ require?” Aimee Le ’12 sang, “Ain’t gonna let Jeff Immelt turn me around.”
Individuals protesting the lecture including members of Students Stand with Staff and Service Employees International Union Local 560 said the College’s invitation to Immelt to speak as part of the Leading Voices series constituted a celebration of his achievements and ideology, which disregard working class individuals.
“As GE’s stock tanked with the rest of the U.S. economy, Immelt and the rest of the ruling class kept their golden parachutes,” a flyer distributed by protesters said. “GE’s profit-maximizing policy of tax evasion has withheld billions of dollars better spent on social services or job creation. As millions of Americans go hungry as even more struggle to send their kids to college or to keep themselves healthy the engineers of the financial crisis are on the lecture circuit.”
Students and staff began planning the protest about a week ago via email, according to history professor Russell Rickford, who helped to organize the protest. Students involved in Students Stand with Staff have expressed frustration toward the “contradictions” on campus, such as the contrast between praise for “icons of corporate greed” and concerns about economic suffering, he said.
As CEO of GE and a member of the Board of Trustees, Immelt “personifies corporate welfare” and an economic system in which the lower classes must take responsibility for the failures of the wealthy, Rickford said.
This national issue manifests itself on campus in the relationship between the administration and College employees, the latter of whom suffered cuts to benefits as part of a deficit reduction plan, according to Facilities, Operations and Management employee Bruce Tuthill, who attended the protest.
“You’re supposed to return from recessions,” Tuthill said. “Didn’t President Kim give himself a raise?”
National economic corruption also affects students who immerse themselves in “hyper-work” in the hopes of becoming “hedge fund managers” or part of a corporate elite, according to Rickford.
By collaborating to address the issue of corporate corruption and economic inequality, students, workers and professors can rebuild democracy and overcome the pressure to remain silent, he said.
“We’re tired of the reality we keep getting fed,” Karenina Rojas ’13, one of the event’s organizers, said.
Many Dartmouth students particularly those from high-income backgrounds remain unaware of difficulties faced by working class families, she said.
“There are [College] workers living in the Upper Valley who are really suffering and can’t pay their medical bills,” she said. “Business leaders don’t contextualize things. They see things in terms of numbers, in terms of statistics.”