Sure, celebrities such as Samuel Jackson, Bono, and Alice Walker were set to appear at the Green Inaugural Ball, held on the eve of President Barack Obama's Jan. 20 inauguration. But the real draw for this celebration of all things bright-green and renewable was Al Gore.
There was Gore, striding in with his wife, Tipper, on the green carpet at the Smithsonian's Center of American Art & Portraiture, getting a big hug from green-hatted musician Michael Franti, who said he'd walked a few blocks to the event in bare feet. There he was on the VIP floor of the adjacent and recently renovated National Portrait Gallery, holding court under the busts of Abraham Lincoln and Roman emperors, beads of sweat glistening on his beaming face as fans swarmed around, drawn like photons to a solar panel, waiting to have their pictures taken with him and Tipper.
"It's cool," said Matthew Mears of SunWorks, a Florida-based solar equipment company, as he waited his turn. "He's the most famous person I've ever met."
Across the room, Chris Traub, CEO of the Strategic Executive Search Group, watched the quietly determined jostling to get close to the Oscar- and Nobel Prize-winning former Vice-President. "Al Gore has rock star power," said Traub, who had traveled all the way from Taipei, Taiwan, for the chance to mingle with the green crowd.
Getting Down to Business
And so it went at the Green Ball, where the food was organic, the video screen showed stirring pictures of workers installing solar panels and touring wind farms, and the throng responded to the pulsating beat of Maroon 5 by talking policy and thumbing their BlackBerrys instead of actually dancing. "It's a real swinging crowd," joked one environmentalist as she watched the huge green-lit ballroom from an overlooking second-floor window.
It was a fitting tribute to the rise of a new power center in Washington—and a clean contrast with eight years ago, when the Bush Administration rode to power behind the backing of oil companies and other traditional energy outfits.
The real action at the Green Ball wasn't cutting loose, but getting down to business. "We're momentarily giddy but fundamentally serious," said Carl Pope, executive director of the Sierra Club, who bucked the green trend with a bright-red bow tie and cummerbund. "I've already done a lot of networking," reported Mike Clemons, CEO of Oklahoma City's Green Energy Holdings, which invests in green companies, as he worked the VIP room.
Just about everyone was on message: Start the green revolution! Fight climate change! Create jobs in solar, wind, biofuels, and energy efficiency! Halfway through the evening, Nancy Pelosi strode to the stage in a shimmering suit with a hint of fuchsia. "Nothing could be more important than the issue that brings us here," she said. "I made this issue—reversing climate change and ending energy dependence—the flagship issue of the Democratic Congress."
The Green Industry's Moment
The company executives in attendance extolled the bottom-line benefits.
"Green is good for business," said John Replogle, CEO of Burt's Bees, the maker of lip balm and other personal care products. Replogle drove up for the event from Morrisville, N.C., in his hybrid car. "We've cut waste 85% in the last five years, and cut the energy per unit of production by 40%. We've saved hundreds of thousands of dollars."
And the excitement over Obama's green jobs rhetoric was palpable.
"The whole green economy will be a wonderful way to jump-start the emissions reductions we need to slow climate change," said Rosina Bierbaum, dean of the University of Michigan's School of Natural Resources & Environment and former associate director of the Clinton White House's Office of Science & Technology Policy.
For Rhone Resch, president of the Solar Energy Industries Assn., "it's almost like the coming of age of our industries. We as an industry are declaring war on the recession. We are deploying thousands of troops, with thousands of projects ready to go."
The Green Ball, of course, was billed as carbon neutral. The emissions generated from the electricity used at the event were offset by buying emissions-reduction credits from Native Energy, which supports Native American, farmer-owned, community-based renewable energy projects. It was a lot of electricity, judging from the megawatt sound system. "It's a bit loud," said Paula DiPerna, executive vice-president for the Chicago Climate Exchange, who regretted not bringing earplugs.
But no one was really complaining.
"This is wonderful," said Denise Bode, CEO of the American Wind Energy Assn. "It's a tremendous pep rally for the fight to come."
Carey is a senior correspondent for BusinessWeek in Washington.