Going Green

In his Washington Postcolumn last Friday, EJ Dionne writes that Al Gore is playing "his usual role of unpaid party visionary by arguing that we can ease the climate crisis, the economic crisis and the crisis of dependence on foreign energy all at once." While Republicans attempt to exploit high gas prices with a "drill, drill, drill" election year slogan, Gore explained in a speech yesterday at Constitution Hall in Washington, DC "that the technology for alternative fuels - wind, solar and geothermal - is far more advanced than we realize," and that we should pursue a 10-year goal of obtaining 100 percent of our electricity from renewable sources and clean fuels.

Gore said: "...when we look at all three of these seemingly intractable challenges at the same time, we can see the common thread running through them.... our dangerous over-reliance on carbon-based fuels is at the core of all three of these challenges - the economic, environmental and national security crises. We're borrowing money from China to buy oil from the Persian Gulf to burn it in ways that destroy the planet. Every bit of that's got to change... But if we grab hold of that common thread and pull it hard, all of these complex problems begin to unravel and we will find that we're holding the answer to all of them right in our hand. The answer is to end our reliance on carbon-based fuels."

In the audience was Senator Bernie Sanders, who spoke with Vice President Gore backstage about his new bill, the 10 Million Solar Roofs Act of 2008. A truly independent voice in the Senate, Sen. Sanders has been a leader in pushing the Democratic Congress in a progressive direction - and energy policy is no exception.

Last year I wrote of Sen. Sanders' green collar jobs amendment which passed but currently awaits funding. Now his 10 Million Solar Roofs legislation - whose cosponsors include Republican Senators Arlen Specter and John Warner - offers yet another transformative alternative to oil dependence as usual. The bill would provide homeowners, businesses, non-profits and state and local governments with rebates covering up to half of the cost of photovoltaic systems which average $20,000. In order to qualify for the federal rebates, stringent energy efficiency standards would need to be met. Some experts say that if 10 percent of the existing rooftops in the US were equipped with properly installed systems, they could supply 70 percent of peak energy demands during summer months.

"My bill picks up in a sense where California left off," Sen. Sanders told me in an interview. "California and oddly enough New Jersey are the leaders in the country in providing incentives to help people and businesses put up photovoltaic units on their roofs. California had a 10-year, 1 million rooftop project, we're saying that we can do 10 million rooftops in the course of 10 years. Now, number one, if you do that, it provides a helluvalot of electricity, which means you don't need coal-burning plants, it means you don't need nuclear power plants. Number two, what rooftop electricity does, it really makes people more conscious about sustainable energy in a way that even solar thermal [plants] won't - because that's just another power plant. The idea of having rooftops all over this country producing electricity is, I think, an extraordinary thing. You're going to have 10 million individuals, homeowners, businesses, involved in producing electricity.... So, I think this will aid in improving our consciousness about how we utilize electricity, how we produce it, and so forth....And the goal also is not only producing the electricity, it's when you start using that much photovoltaic, the cost of that stuff is going to go down."

Sanders recently took a trip to Nevada and New Mexico for a Congressional field hearing on solar energy. In Nevada, he saw two major solar installations, including the Nevada Solar One project in Carson which is now providing electricity to 17,000 homes. "That's small," he told me. "Right now on the drawing board - people don't know this - but... there are about a dozen plans for the Southwest, these are called 'concentrating solar plants' or sometimes people call them 'solar thermal plants.' These are the same technology, electricity-generating technology, as coal or gas. The same bloody thing except the fuel now is from the sun. There is one plant that Pacific Gas and Electric plans to build within a couple of years that will provide electricity - one plant - for 400,000 homes, the equivalent of a small nuclear power plant. So, there is huge potential in concentrating solar."

In fact, he said the Southwest "turns out to be an optimal place to on the planet" for solar thermal plants. It's estimated that with an aggressive approach 15-20% of the US electricity needs could be produced just from the region. "So when Gore says that in 10 years we should produce 100% of electricity from sustainable sources, 20% of that can come just from [there]," Sen. Sanders said. "And then you can have another huge amount from photovoltaics. Then you got wind, then you got geothermal, then you got biomass. It is a doable deed."

Sanders challenged the myth that a state like Vermont can't produce solar energy - and it's important to differentiate between solar thermal plants and photovoltaic panels. "The country that is probably leading the world in photovoltaics I believe is Germany," Sen. Sanders said. "Germany's solar exposure is worse than Vermont's.... It is a technology that can be used in 50 states. Photovoltaics can work, and it's important to know that because [the notion that it can't] is a myth."

Sanders sees his bill and the production of solar thermal plants as a piece of a much larger picture - and one that won't happen any time soon without a change of administration and a new President.

"It's certainly not going to happen under the Bush administration," he said. "Here's where I think we're at: if we have a president - if Senator Obama is prepared to do what Al Gore just was talking about yesterday. And to understand that, one, we have a planetary crisis. Number two, that the importation of hundreds of billions of dollars of oil from dictatorships in the Middle East is a geopolitical disaster, it's a major economic problem. If Obama is prepared to make this a major priority - Gore was talking about the man on the moon analogy, other people talk about the Manhattan Project analogy - if he's prepared to do that then these 10 million rooftops become absolutely part of that.... It's part of an overall energy approach to deal with greenhouse gas emissions, and, by the way, environmental concerns. We're focused on greenhouse gas emissions, we forget that this coal is making a lot of people sick as well.... Of course there will be economic dislocation... [and] we want to protect the coal miners who will lose their jobs. But at the same time you are going to create major industry after major industry in terms of sustainable energy. I think at the end of the day we create millions of jobs in net and it's absolutely an economic win. It's a question now of taking on the fossil fuel industry, and the huge amounts of lobbying money and campaign contributions. At the end of the day we can reverse global warming, we clean up the environment, we create good jobs, we break our dependence on foreign oil - hey, that's a pretty good agenda, huh?"

It is indeed. This Sunday, former politician Al Gore will be on Meet the Press where he will once again lay out his visionary agenda. Meanwhile, we are lucky to have at least one visionary politician inside the Senate who relentlessly pushes this desperately needed transformative agenda.

Katrina vanden Heuvel is Editor and Publisher of The Nation.

Copyright (c) 2008 The Nation

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