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Q&A
Fueling the Planet
Fred Krupp, head of the Environmental Defense Fund, reflects on the future of renewable energy.

 

Does it ever seem as if renewable energy’s big moment is always just on the horizon? Fred Krupp and Miriam Horn’s new book, Earth: The Sequel: The Race to Reinvent Energy and Stop Global Warming, helps explain why as it documents the steps taken by pioneers struggling to make renewable energy economically viable. Krupp, head of the Environmental Defense Fund for 23 years, has spent his career devising ways that market forces can help improve the environment and challenging businesses to accept responsibility for our planet. Audubon recently spoke with him.

Audubon: Are you surprised Earth: The Sequel made the New York Times best-seller list? Can you account for why this might be a popular topic?
Krupp: I have been surprised that people really have resonated with the theme of hope and that there are reasons to be hopeful. It’s said that there’s a difference between hope and optimism that professor David Orr at Oberlin educated me to: Optimism is a prediction that everything is going to be fine. Hope is a verb with its sleeves rolled up. But if we all get together and pass the laws we need there are strong reasons to be hopeful that we can develop and deploy the technologies we need to stop global warming.

Q: Of the renewable energy resources highlighted in the book, which do you think has the most potential to revolutionize the U.S. energy industry, if given the chance?
A: Two things. One of the beauties of the government putting into place a performance-based system is that none of us have to have the hubris to predict which answer will be most effective and the cheapest. We give them all a fair chance and whether it’s geothermal, solar, or ocean power or carbon capture and sequestration from coal, everything is put on a level playing field once you require the energy industry and other industries to drastically cut the carbon pollution they’re spewing into the atmosphere. The second answer is that we did order the chapters in the book in a way that reflects some thinking about the potential, and we talk about the fact that even a square of land 100 miles on a side converting the sunlight at 10 percent efficiency could provide enough power to power the entire country. That means we have ample sunshine coming to earth, and we’re on our way to making the conversion to electricity and making it less costly.

Q: Is carbon sequestration something you think can be developed and implemented in time to make a difference in climate change? Should it be getting just as many research dollars as solar and geothermal?
A: Well, the amount of money going to renewable energy research is appallingly low. In the book we note the renewable energy budget in the United States government is only about a billion dollars a year—about the same as what Exxon’s revenues are in a day. I think we need to ramp up research dollars on renewable energies by at least an order of magnitude. But I also believe that in carbon sequestration, we need to get going in deploying it. I think there’s enough private dollars going into research there, and what we really need to do is create the requirement that carbon be reduced from these power plants, and then you’ll see these real-world experiences develop in making it happen.

Q: Now that the two major political parties have chosen their nominees, are you encouraged by the fact that both support legislation to combat global warming?
A: Yes. Both of these candidates have been very strong on climate change and both have wanted substantial reductions to be implemented using a declining cap in the amount of global warming pollution allowed to be emitted. Therefore, both represent a big change from the current administration.

Q: Why do you think renewable energy can flourish only in a cap-and-trade system in America?
A: If we allowed people to collect garbage from our homes and businesses and dump it in our parks, I’m afraid that some people actually would. At present, we let people dump global warming “garbage” into the atmosphere without limit in the United States. Once you create a level playing field by saying this pollution garbage has got to be curbed and ultimately stopped, it gives an enormous boost to renewable energy.

Q: In the book you say it is a mistake to let the federal government “pick a winner” when it comes to renewable energy policy. What do you mean?
A: This problem is not going to be solved without the government. The government has an essential role to play in requiring that limits be put on the amount of this pollution that can be put in the air. In fact, nowhere in the world have we solved an air pollution problem without putting limits on the amount of pollution pumped into the air. So the government’s role needs to be in setting limits; in rigorous monitoring and verification, and enforcing the limits with steep penalties; and in verifying that any technology, like carbon sequestration—where’s there’s a claim that carbon is going to be either taken out of the atmosphere or a smokestack and sequestered somewhere—there’s a huge government role in certifying that is scientifically the case. We need to make sure any offsets marketed are scientifically valid. However, when government picks winners and losers, it tends to pick losers. It’s best to put out that performance standard and let all the entrepreneurial energy and all the engineering expertise that America is famous for go to work—indeed all the expertise around the world go to work to meet that performance standard as opposed to having some office workers in Washington predict which technology will be best suited for the job.

Q: One example of an instance where you say the government picked the wrong winner is in the case of corn-based ethanol. Would you support the use of switchgrasses and native prairie grasses to make biofuel instead?
A: All ethanol is not created equal, and the key to having a performance standard in which carbon is symmetric is that it creates an incentive for ethanol produced from switchgrass or other native grasses, it creates an incentive for cellulosic ethanol and ultimately creates a shift away from conventional corn-based ethanol, which at best looks like a marginal contribution to solving the global warming problem.

Q: How can regular consumers drive the market toward renewable energy?
A: Actually, voting may be the most important way because only through voting and contacting our elected officials can we get the carbon cap that is the essential prerequisite to a lot of this change. But in addition to that, consumers, in being aware of their carbon footprint and working to slice it down, can have an impact, and when the inventory of Toyota Priuses is measured in hours, consumers are having an impact and sending a signal to automakers to produce efficient cars. When Wal-Mart says they’re going to stop selling plasma TVs and carry only the more efficient LCDs, and when consumers express a preference for more efficient TVs and washing machines and lightbulbs, that makes a difference.

Q: So we should be voting with our dollars?
A: Vote with your dollars but also recognize that we do need national law and an international treaty to break the back of this problem.

Q: Ultimately, are you optimistic about the future of renewable energy?
A: Well there’re so many great engineers working on this and there’s so much money waiting for a carbon cap to be put in place that there’s every reason to be optimistic that we’ll hit economies of scale and bring down the cost of solar, wind, and geothermal, even tidal and wave power. I am very optimistic, but we don’t want to leave the future of the planet to optimism or chance and to make this future come true, we do need that declining cap on carbon emissions.

For a review of Earth: The Sequel, click here.

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