Power Lunch

A diverse group of experts sits down to map plans for 21st-century energy

| September/October 2002


When Vice President Dick Cheney and his controversial National Energy Policy Development Group met last year, they were supposed to come up with a plan that would best serve the country. Instead, Cheney's task force, made up exclusively of energy-industry executives and lobbyists, sought massive subsidies for the oil, gas, coal, and nuclear industries; construction of 1,300 to 1,900 power plants; and increased drilling and mining on public lands. The only serious attention conservation and renewable energy received was when the Department of Energy dipped into those programs' budgets to pay for printing 10,000 copies of the White House plan.

Sierra decided to bring together our own energy task force. We didn't talk only to environmentalists. We also invited the head of a multinational oil company, a labor leader, an architect, a state public official, and a utility executive. Six leading energy experts took part in this discussion moderated by executive director Carl Pope.

There were genuine surprises, including an environmentalist arguing that growth can be good if we're growing the right things, and the man once responsible for some of our largest nuclear plants saying, 'In this age of terror, we just can't have them.' But all agreed that the path ahead can and must lead beyond fossil fuels-and that a peaceable, sane, and sustainable energy policy is within reach. All we need is political leadership in Washington with the vision and courage to choose wisely how we light the way ahead. Here are some highlights.

THE PROMISE OF A HYDROGEN ECONOMY
'If, after the oil crisis of 1973, we had decided we wanted to pay attention to 19th-century writer Jules Verne, who told us that we were going to eventually get our fuel from water-namely, by separating water into hydrogen and oxygen-we would probably have a hydrogen economy by now.'
-David Freeman, energy policy coordinator for Presidents Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon, now chair of the California Consumer Power and Conservation Financing Authority

'I, too, see the goal in this century being an electricity-hydrogen-energy economy that will make us independent of fossil fuels. . . . If we like Gulf wars and all the other issues that are dependent on our addiction to that oil source, then we don't need to do anything.'
-Kurt Yeager, president and chief executive officer of the industry-funded Electrical Power Research Institute


THE IMMENSE POTENTIAL OF WIND POWER
'Three of the wind-rich states-North Dakota, Kansas, and Texas-have enough harnessable wind energy to satisfy all the nation's electricity needs. . . . We're looking at a situation now where, within five years, thousands of ranchers in this country will be earning far more from electricity sales than from cattle sales.'
-Lester Brown, founder of the Worldwatch Institute, is president and senior researcher at the Earth Policy Institute

'Instead of simply building clustered wind farms, which are basically central power plants, we are looking at a dispersed system that provides more benefit to more people. The distribution systems would be different, and they would look beautiful in the landscape. Additionally, we're working on small-scale generation . . . microturbines every three blocks.'
-William McDonough, one of the world's leading green designers, leads innovative architecture and industrial design firms


UNIONS AS ALLIES FOR RENEWABLE-ENERGY ACTIVISTS
'The Sierra Club conducted a poll in Michigan last winter: . . . 77 percent of the general public thinks we should make the auto companies produce cars that get 40 miles per gallon; 84 percent of the members of the United Auto Workers think so. This is not the official position of the United Auto Workers, which worked hand in hand with the Bush administration to defeat an effort by Senators John Kerry (D-Mass.) and John McCain (R-Ariz.) to raise fuel-efficiency standards.'
-Carl Pope, executive director of the Sierra Club

'In poll after poll, when union members are asked about solar energy, wind power, efficiency, conservation, hydrogen fuel cells, and so on, they are even more in favor of these things than the general public. Clearly, there is a disconnect between the policies that unions champion and the rank and file.'
-Jane Perkins, a research fellow at the George Meany Center for Labor Studies and adviser to the Blue/Green Working Group, a coalition of labor and environmental leaders


NUKES AS TERRORISTS TARGETS
'After September 11, we are surely not so dumb as to build more Trojan horses in our country. The danger of penetration into a nuclear reactor-which is difficult but not impossible-is so horrendous that we've got to be out of our minds to build more nuclear power plants. And I say this as a person who's had as much experience with nuclear power as anyone in this country.'
-David Freeman


HOW MUCH LONGER CAN OVERCONSUMPTION GO ON?
'I question whether technological growth can keep us ahead of the consumption wolf-particularly if we're trying to export a consumption-based economy to the whole world. At some point we need to say enough is enough.'
-Kurt Yeager


HOW PUBLIC POLICIES PROP UP DIRTY ENERGY
'The key to rapidly moving from fossil-fuel dependency to renewable energy resources is leveling the economic playing field. Either we eliminate the subsidies for fossil fuels and nuclear [power] or we do something like extend the wind-production tax credit. We need to get the market to tell the ecological truth.'
-Lester Brown

Marilyn Berlin Snell is writer/editor at Sierra, the Sierra Club's magazine. Excerpted from Sierra (July/August 2002). Subscriptions: $15/yr. (6 issues) from Box 52968, Boulder, CO 80328. The complete text can also be found online at www.sierraclub.org/powerlunch.

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