This article appeared in the Denver Post on August 30, 2009.
I sat in the White House Cabinet room as the president and his advisers formulated their official plan to garner half of America's energy from solar and conservation by 2020. At the table were union officials pleased at a White House report that showed an enormous number of jobs would be created for welders, plumbers, sheet metal workers, electrical engineers, carpenters and architects.
That meeting took place 30 years ago.
The president was Jimmy Carter. His 1978 Council on Environmental Quality had concluded that "it is now possible to speak realistically of the United States becoming a solar society."
I chaired California's SolarCal Council, part of a federal consortium charged with implementing the solar transition. Very rapidly, 1,700 solar and conservation companies had formed in California, employing 23,000 people. The Livermore Laboratories issued a study concluding that it was feasible for California to operate on renewable, decentralized energy systems by 2025 even assuming that the population would double and economic activity triple.
So what happened?
Under Republican presidents, the plans were simply shelved. The Reagan administration tore down the solar collectors that Carter had installed on the roof. Even in the Clinton-Gore years, the administration retreated from the fuel efficiency standards that Gore had advocated in his best-selling book, "Earth in the Balance." Status quo forces led by the oil industry succeeded in blocking change, even winning millions of dollars for prototypes of electric cars and effectively delaying their production for decades.
California Gov. Jerry Brown was labeled "Governor Moonbeam," despite efficiency reforms that kept California energy use level for decades while national consumption rose 60 percent. Gore later received the same lampooning, being dubbed "the Goracle" and "Captain Planet" despite his Nobel Prize.
Fast forward to the present. With these sobering memories in mind, I attended the recent national clean energy conference in Las Vegas sponsored by Senate leader Harry Reid, with participants that included Bill Clinton, Gore, Secretary of Energy Steven Chu, Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis, the administration's "green jobs" advocate Van Jones, natural gas billionaire T. Boone Pickens, and key labor and environmental representatives.
Would this be a deju vu experience? Or could it be the culmination of those efforts long ago?
My feeling of deju vu first came with the recital of the persistent failure under both parties to capture energy savings from what Chu called the "low hanging fruit": half of all energy waste, for example, is in existing buildings and the materials used for those buildings. Thirty-six million American homes currently qualify for weatherization subsidies, while another 100 million homes need similar retrofits. But only 36,000 units are being weatherized per year.
Optimistic projections also mimicked those heard in 1979. Current House legislation by Reps. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., and Ed Markey, D-Mass., initially required utilities to draw 25 percent of their electricity from renewables like solar and wind by 2025, then was weakened to 15 percent by 2020 to get congressional votes. That number now floats around 17 percent, with the Senate almost certain to weaken the standards further.
Global pressure is building on the U.S. as negotiations proceed toward a December Copenhagen deadline to follow up on the Kyoto climate treaty. Many scientists are urging President Barack Obama to reach the European target of 20 percent below 1990 emissions levels by 2020, or face the probability of the seas flooding many coastal cities.
But why should congressmen representing mining, agriculture and swing states care about coastlines? Why should Republicans and Blue Dogs bow to the demands of foreign powers in Copenhagen? Already the oil companies are generating opposition to tougher standards. British Petroleum and Exxon Mobil are "studiously ignoring the new messages coming from Washington," according to a New York Times story. Industry lobbies are paying for 20 anti-climate bill rallies this month. If you think health care is a war, wait until the energy clash just ahead.
What worried me as I sat in Las Vegas conference meetings was the prediction of Gore's 1992 book: "The maximum that is politically feasible still falls short of the minimum that is truly effective." Clinton reminded the gathering how far we had traveled since the day the U.S. Senate voted 95-0 against the Kyoto Treay while Gore, as vice president, was in Japan still negotiating. Clinton was hopeful that Gore will see progress in Copenhagen three months from now.
The Obama stimulus legislation and Waxman-Markey bill, despite being watered down, still would invest $24.4 billon in real money for energy efficiency, $25.3 billion for renewables, and $23 billon for transit improvements. Greenhouse gas emissions would be based on California's regulation of new vehicles. The measure puts off setting standards for renewable electricity, industrial efficiency and carbon capture and storage, setting the stage for fights ahead. According to Clinton and Obama adviser John Podesta, the package means $150 billion in clean energy investments yearly for 10 years, creating 1.7 million net new jobs.
How to possibly evolve from our current fossil-fuel economy to one based on renewables and efficiency while fighting long wars over oil and pipelines in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iran was a contradiction too large for the specialized brains at the table. Pickens, the 81-year-old businessman who sees the energy issue as a national security crisis, declared at one point that Obama "should not leave Iraq without a call on their oil." He also argued for energy efficiency so no oil need be bought from Venezuela's Hugo Chavez.
After giving a well-reasoned speech on changing our economic incentive structures, Clinton pulled out a brown pellet the size of a hockey puck in a plastic bag. The pellet was from Haiti, made from crushed paper, sawdust and garbage, selling for one penny. Clinton extolled the little object as an alternative to cutting down trees to make charcoal for cooking.
It was Clinton's Jerry Brown moment, but no one was making fun of it. Decades before, Brown, prompted by California environmentalists, was promoting woodchips-for-energy as an example of what in those days we called "appropriate technology." Clinton had defeated Brown in the 1992 primaries. After his speech, Clinton walked over, smiled, and told me with a shrug, "That's all I do these days, little things that make a difference."
Will those little things, backed by money and regulations, finally make a difference this time? At least the transition is beginning.