Is it possible that Tulsa could follow its "Oil Capital of the World" moniker with a new, decidedly more impressive handle as the "Alternative Energy Capital"?
This is Mayor Dewey Bartlett Jr.'s expressed objective, one conveyed in a host of venues and at various times. Do we have the chutzpah, talent depth, the political will and the competitive strategy skills required to make it happen?
Becoming the "alt energy" capital is what New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman calls, in a slightly different context, Tulsa's "moon shot."
The big query here, Tulsa energy entrepreneur Todd Stephens of Ion Solar says, is simple: can we harness our collective imaginations and our deep entrepreneurial and oil patch legacy to do it?
Gigantic job gains, accelerated development and great quality of life yields await us if we get to work and realize, as Deng Xiaoping, the father of China's epic economic boom once said, "It doesn't matter whether a cat is black or white -- as long as it catches mice."
The effort to becoming the "alt energy" capital is a real hill climb -- one that will require an audacious strategy, something other than "me too" efforts and one that will require challenging some of the ideological taboos that have hobbled Tulsa in the past.
Taking Care of the "People's House"
The City of Tulsa (the organization) is currently engaged in a federally funded effort to re-engineer the energy efficiency of its buildings, rolling stock, big operations like water and sewer and police and fire field ops, an initiative that will surely make Tulsa a greener and more sustainable polis.
Brett Fidler, the Mayor's manager of sustainability -- and a life sciences/environmental professional and an intense and dedicated staffer -- is orchestrating this essential, overdue project. This is a challenging, faceted project and Fidler should be given additional hands and heads to fully execute the effort. As it happens, a host of cities across the country and many European municipalities are undertaking similar initiatives.
While there is a teaching "effect" that the City might impart to Green Country private firms and other institutions via this project, it is not likely to be transformative. There are also a bevy of residential and commercial energy conservation and build environment initiatives that could come by way of Tulsa's new comprehensive plan once it is fully executed. This is a needed effort, one with a foot in a host of communities.
It's obvious to everyone I've talked to that the voyage toward "alt energy" leadership is longer, more adventurous and much more demanding than reshaping the energy footprint at City Hall or putting an energy "overlay" in place to guide physical planning and development in Tulsa.
A Grand Competition
One idea: call on existing businesses, individuals, our universities and out-of-state folks to suggest how Tulsa might segue to the "alt energy" capital.
Some readers may know that Charles Lindbergh's 1927 virgin voyage across the Atlantic was sparked by a celebrated contest -- a trans-planetary competition crafted by a small group of American and European businessman -- a contest to advance the state of commercial aviation by rewarding the team that could fly a human to or from New York City to Paris.
Lindberg and his team were backed by a group of folks in St. Louis. Lucky Lindy's trip electrified the public and accelerated the evolution of commercial aviation.
In our time, General Electric's nearly completed Ecomagination contest is a fascinating, imaginative competition that may foster breakout energy technologies. Tulsa could launch an equally bodacious energy futures effort with substantial prizes from local businesses and our formidable philanthropic community. In all likelihood we would get dozens of proposals, most having limited utility, but we might get some world-class proposals -- powerful, economically sustainable, fully competitive and executable strategies for getting to the Mayor's destination.
Aggressive Research and Development
Dramatically pumping up the amount, scale and variety of energy research and development in Green Country is a stellar piece of the way ahead if "alt energy" capital is our destination. Some of the intensified work would build on promising projects already underway at TU, OU and OSU and in private operations.
If we fail to recognize that having a powerful and extremely well-funded R&D portfolio in our area is key to fostering the start-ups, company expansions and talent attraction efforts so essential to being the alt energy headquarters, then we have missed out, and it is unlikely that we will get to the Mayor's destination.
Can Tulsa Be Red and Green?
Tulsans have been good at using tax packages and bond issues to ignite growth and accelerate development. The amazing re-animation of Tulsa's downtown is grand proof of the yield of large strategic projects on private developers, Tulsa consumers and outside perceptions.
The BOK Center, the City Hall move and the ONEOK Field gambit are yielding a business ecology that few could have imagined five years ago.
The leadership of former mayors LaFortune and Taylor was transformative here. Making Tulsa the alt energy capital will call for an even bigger political, intellectual and strategic commitment and will require new funding from the public square. And, as Ion Solar's Stephens reminded me, Tulsa will also need outsized placements from Tulsa energy legacy firms and from our hugely imaginative philanthropic community.
Tulsans, it needs to be remembered, responded overwhelmingly to a huge economic development "infusion" for Boeing in 2003 and approved a subsequently unused $350 million financing package.
We were willing to fund a quixotic effort to induce an aerospace giant to put on roller skates and roll to T-Town. What would keep us, we should all be asking, from investing boldly in ourselves and the imaginative efforts necessary to make our city's "alt energy" efforts a real prospect?
What we have in the Mayor's project is a bold, if so far hazy conception of the way forward for Tulsa -- one that is positively entangled with almost all of the city's history, business culture and entrepreneurial spirit.
In reality, there is only so much political, psychological, intellectual, imaginative and philanthropic capital in our town. Focusing intensely is what Nike, Apple, Intel, Google, Singapore and other singular firms and places have done -- why not do the same here?
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