The New In-Crowd in Obama's Washington: the Renewable Energy Folks

At Al Gore's Green Inaugural Ball, the real celebrities were from renewable energy industries.

Former Vice President Al Gore and his wife Tipper at the inaugural ceremonies at the US Capitol for President Barack Obama.

Former Vice President Al Gore and his wife Tipper at the inaugural ceremonies.

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Perhaps only in President Barack Obama's Washington could the CEOs of the nation's top wind and solar trade organizations pass for celebrities.

Yet if anyone needed an indicator of the growing prominence of the renewable energy world in the nation's capital during the age of Obama, it was on display Monday night at the Green Inaugural Ball, hosted by former Vice President Al Gore at the National Portrait Gallery.

Standing on the red—or rather, green—carpet alongside musicians like John Legend, Maroon 5, and will.i.am were Denise Bode, the CEO of the American Wind Energy Association, and Rhone Resch, the Solar Energy Industries Association's president and CEO.

The two lingered on the green carpet for a long while, chatting with associates, posing for pictures, shaking hands, and mingling with the more traditional, high-profile celebrities—such as Gore himself—who had brought out such star-chasing media as Glamour magazine.

Inside the ballroom, though, the talk was mostly wonky. Among the several hundred attendees were a large number of D.C. lobbyists, environmentalists, and trade association officials. They sat at small tables (with green tablecloths) or stood around in small groups, discussing topics like the nuances of carbon cap-and-trade legislation.

Mentions of "Boxer" and "Waxman" floated from one huddle to the next—references to Sen. Barbara Boxer and Rep. Henry Waxman, the California Democrats who now chair major committees on energy or the environment and are expected to play a central role in drafting climate change legislation this year.

And the fate of bills, dealing with everything from conservation of public lands to tax incentives for the wind and solar industries, were a prime topic as people stood in line to fill their dinner plates with organic hamburgers and salads.

For these renewable energy proponents, Obama's presidency comes at a critical time: On one hand, the recent record-high oil prices have boosted the visibility of their industry. But the economic downturn is taking a toll, particularly with the tightening of credit markets and the drying up of corporate investment.

Still, the event was something of a coming-out party for renewable energy, which has evolved over the past decade from a group of niche industries into serious forces on Capitol Hill with sophisticated lobbying operations.

"We are making energy independence and reversing climate change a priority," said House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, a prominent backer of incentives for renewable energy.

Taking the stage several hours into the ball, Gore told the crowd, "We have everything we need now, save perhaps political will. But...tomorrow at high noon, political will is a renewable resource."

And as if to address the power brokers in the room, Gore added, "We have to get out there and help [Obama] pass his program."

That program, as Obama has outlined it, includes doubling the country's renewable energy production and spending at least $150 billion to develop cleaner energy technologies. To get there, advocates say that Congress and the new president should continue to work on extending tax credits for wind, solar, and other renewable energy sources, help developers get access to financing for renewable projects, and find ways to improve electricity transmission from resource-rich areas—the windy Midwest, the sunny Southwest—to populous coastal regions.

"We are trying to get people on board not just for the stimulus package but for legislation down the road as well," says Bode. "For transmission, we are trying to build a consensus between industries and environmentalists and utilities, with leadership from the White House and Congress."