EDITOR’S NOTE: Correspondent Brian Rogal is covering the Midwest Energy Efficiency Alliance conference in Chicago. Click here for a complete archive of his posts.

Last year’s failure to pass a cap-and-trade bill should not dishearten advocates for clean energy and energy efficiency projects, says Bracken Hendricks, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress. Hendricks spoke at the opening session on the second day of the Midwest Energy Alliance’s annual conference in Chicago.

There have been two very distinct conversations about energy going on in the country for years, he adds, and the first, about climate change, “is primarily about stopping bad things from happening.” But the second conversation about starting up energy efficiency projects should be framed as “laying the ground work for a new economy.”

Therefore, even with the massive influx of new Republican members of Congress, many of whom have expressed deep apprehension about environmental efforts, especially while the country remains mired in a jobless economic recovery, stakeholders have a way of advocating for change that will build support instead of driving it a way. He then noted that many of the United States’ economic competitors, including Europe, China and South Korea, poured a far greater percentage of their financial stimulus into clean energy programs. Although the amount of money spent by the Obama administration on clean energy was historic, it was still a small slice overall, and he believes everyone, including incoming members of Congress, should worry that the U.S. is beginning to fall behind.

He draws inspiration from the dizzying expansion of the cell phone industry in the aftermath of the 1996 Telecom Act. Until then, the technology “had spent a decade sputtering along.” But even though the U.S. had a divided government, very similar to today, a deal got done that gave the industry a clear regulatory environment, touching off huge investments. It happened “because there was a business consensus” for such a deal, carrying along Democrats and Republicans.

The same conditions exist today for energy efficiency, Hendricks says. “I believe this is very fundamentally a bipartisan issue.” People need to know that this is “not just a green veneer” on a secret climate change agenda. But if is “a business proposition [that] is something we can unite around.”