Renewable energy supporters cheered when John Kerry, in his Democratic convention acceptance speech, called for an American energy future that relies on our "own ingenuity and innovation and not the Saudi royal family."
Maybe grass-roots America understands already. Coast to coast, for example, states are setting minimum percentages of renewable energy — solar, wind, geothermal — that they require utilities to achieve. About half the states are funding energy-efficiency programs.
The Western Governors Association., at the urging of Arnold Schwarzenegger, R-Calif., and Bill Richardson, D-N.M., has just made a commitment to a package of tax breaks, government outlays, and ways to shift utilities away from oil and coal. The goal: huge increases in renewable energy production in the next 20 years. Governors of New England and the eastern Canadian provinces have made a similar commitment, aimed at reducing the greenhouse emissions that cause global warming.
Standouts among big cities showing serious commitments to green buildings and reduced fossil fuel consumption include Chicago, San Francisco, Boston, Portland, Seattle, Austin, Phoenix and Los Angeles.
San Francisco, for example, is looking at wind turbines, solar photovoltaic cells, hydrogen technologies and efficiency installations to power a quarter of the city by the end of this decade.
Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley, with a vision of developing America's greenest city, has pushed to meet clean-air standards faster than any other metropolitan area, cleaned up 1,000 acres of polluted industrial land, spent more than $5 billion to plant trees and improve walkways, streets, parks and neighborhood communities. On the education side, there's Chicago's new Center for Green Technology, exhibiting such elements as its rooftop solar panels, photovoltaic awnings, a geothermal heat pump, high-performance windows, storm-water retention and a reflective parking lot. To underscore his commitment, Daley has appointed a "green czar" to make sure all city departments give weight to environmental impacts in their decision-making.
The idea isn't just providing healthy air or conserving energy. David Reynolds of the Chicago Department of the Environment told Charles Shaw of Newtopia Magazine: "It's also about increasing Chicago's 'competitive edge' as a place businesses, tourists, and today's sought-after 'knowledge workers' seek out."
The multiple benefits that green agendas can achieve for communities are also stressed by two leading advocates — Carol Werner of the Washington-based Environmental and Energy Institute, and her husband, Jack Werner of the Climate Institute.
Communities, the Werners suggested in an interview, should try looking though "a greenhouse lens." They'll find that conservation and renewable energy, the big first steps toward reducing emissions, lead not only to better air quality but better public health, developing better public transit systems, urban designs that encourage walkability, and buildings with natural light and air that are healthier places to work. It all adds up, they note, to "cascading benefits."
Jack Werner is a kind of traveling troubadour helping localities get moving on sustainable energy issues. He starts by looking at players in a metro area already active on energy issues and pulling them together to form a coalition. "I like to make the city and county governments the energy and climate change leaders in the region," says Werner, "to lead by example in their own buildings, procurement choices, and policies to encourage more renewables."
Is all this spitting in the wind — in a country still overwhelmingly dependent on fossil fuel and foreign sources for its energy, a land of gas-guzzling vehicles where the suburban spread model of development is just starting to be challenged? You can argue so. The Union of Concerned Scientists reports, for example, that only five states, led by California and Texas, account for 80 percent of commitments actually made so far to reduce fossil fuel consumption and switch to renewables.
But the U.S. has a long history of state reforms spurring later federal action — including the first energy-efficiency standards for appliances, signed by California Gov. Ronald Reagan in 1974.
And popular sentiment for green alternatives is rising fast. Last December the Mellman Group poll asked Americans the best route to national energy security. Thirty-seven percent named alternative energy sources, 34 percent wanted increased energy efficiency, and only 19 percent favored more production of oil.
Renewable energy may have a long way to go, but local leaders climbing on its bandwagon are headed where Americans instinctively want to travel.
Copyright © 2003 Seattle Times Company