Bill Clinton. Al Gore. Harry Reid. Nancy Pelosi. Steven Chu. Robert Kennedy Jr. Boone Pickens. Carl Pope. John Sweeney. Andy Stern. Van Jones. George Pataki. John Podesta.
They all agreed.
Clean energy will revive our economy, create new jobs, curb climate change and help end our dependence on imported oil. So they said today at a Washington forum organized by the National Clean Energy Project, a project of the influential think tank, the Center for American Progress.
Speakers droned on for nearly three hours. Had they stayed longer, they would have told us that clean energy would cure baldness and whiten teeth, too.
I don’t mean to sound cynical, but it’s hard to see the point of getting all this brainpower together, along with the CEOs of Wal-Mart, Owens Corning and American Electric Power, for a conversation that never got down to the nitty-gritty.
Clean energy is many things, but it’s no panacea. And the real question isn’t whether we want to replace polluting fossil fuels with solar, wind and geothermal energy. The difficult challenges revolve around how we should we do it, how much it will cost, and how to overcome the many obstacles to the so-called clean energy revolution. If it were easy, it would have been done by now.
Those question were all but ignored–surprisingly, since the big names on the program, Clinton and Gore, have been around for a long time. They supported clean energy and opposed global warming in the 1990s but had little to show for it when they left office. “We didn’t have the votes, before,” Clinton said, when asked why. In fairness, Clinton and Gore since then have done great work raising public consciousness around climate.
Maybe their evangelism is—finally—paying off. Certainly the Obama administration’s $787-billion economic stimulus bill allocates lots of money for clean energy, the grid and energy efficiency, Now, despite the dismal economy, momentum seems to be building for the next step—a federal energy bill to promote renewable energy and drive the modernization of the electricity grid.
“We’re going to do an energy bill soon,” Reid said, and it will include a national renewable portfolio standard and policy changes to bring a so-called smart grid a step closer. Only after that, he said, will Congress take up climate legislation.
Clinton and Gore agreed that clean energy had brought together a broader coalition than ever before.
“This [clean energy] coalition has intensified, and held its position in the wake of falling prices for coal and oil,” Clinton said. In the past, he said, “Every time oil dropped, people said give me my Hummer back. That’s not what they’re saying now.”
The country faces three crises, Gore said—the climate crisis, the economic crisis and national security challenges—and “the common thread running through all of them is our ridiculous overdependence on dirty, dangerous carbon-based fuels.”
Only occasionally did the forum get much more detailed than that. No Republicans from Congress were invited to challenge the conventional wisdom, and the business leaders stuck to generalities. Here are a few highlights:
Enhanced federal power will be need to drive the buildout of a national grid. George Pataki, the former New York governor, said: “You try to run a wire through somebody’s community, and that gets as contentious as you can get. Nobody’s going to be for it…What we need is a federal permitting process—not one that’s authoritarian, but one in partnership with the states.”
Reid went a step further. When, during a news conference after the event (see below), he was told that the leader of an association of state regulators had expressed doubt about whether Washington could grab the power to site big tranmission lines, Reid replied bluntly: “He represents state regulators. Whatever we pass at the federal level trumps all that.”
If clean energy means costly energy, poor people will suffer. So said Lee Scott, the outgoing CEO of Wal-Mart: “Remember that if it costs them $5 a week more, they’re not going to buy medication or they’re not going buy something for their children.”
But Scott also urged government leaders to follow Wal-Mart’s lead and set big goals when it comes to sustainability, even if the path forward isn’t unknown. “We had a crystal clear vision of where we wanted to go, but we did not have a crystal clear vision of the route we wanted to get there,” he said.
Turns out that one place the route led was to the chicken fryers. Wal-Mart is about to roll out a few trucks that will run on “the brown grease, the oils that we fry the chicken in, in the deli,” Scott said.
“You’ll be able to eat fried chicken and save the environment,” he added. “We’re going to work on marketing that.”
Energy storage will be needed to drive renewables. Secretary Chu said the technology to build a smart grid is mostly available, but that breakthroughs in storage will be needed before renewable energy can become a bigger part of the electricity mix.
“We have to remember that renewable energy resources like wind and solar are transient. They go up and down,” Chu said. “We don’t have large scale power storage yet. We should start to invest heavily in pump-hydro storage. There’s a possibility of putting in compressed-air storage.”
The winds of change are everywhere. Denise Bode, the new CEO of the American Wind Energy Association, said that 8300 megawatts of new wind power capacity were added last year, that the U.S. now has 70 facilities that manufacture turbines and other products for the wind industry, and that the industry added 35,000 jobs last year. Impressive stuff.
Even more telling is the fact that she joined the wind energy association last fall after a stint as CEO of the American Clean Skies Foundation, a natural gas industry group, and seven years as president of the Independent Petroleum Association of America (IPAA). When oil lobbyists because wind lobbyists, maybe we really are on the verge of change.